Rams' success one of a kind?

Everything worked in team's super season

February 01, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but don't expect 30 other NFL teams to copy the offensive blueprint that crowned the St. Louis Rams this season.

Can't be done.

Consider the events that led to Sunday's Super Bowl coronation of what had been, until this season, the NFL's losingest team in the 1990s:

The off-season re-hiring of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who took a slow-developing, deep drop-back offense and turned it into a quick-hitting, fast-break brand of football. It became the most explosive offense in the league.

The April trade for running back Marshall Faulk, stolen from the Indianapolis Colts for second- and fifth-round draft picks. In Martz's system, Faulk blossomed into the NFL Offensive Player of the Year.

Coach Dick Vermeil's handling of mercurial but injury-prone wide receiver Isaac Bruce, and his decision to ease off the throttle in training camp. Bruce had a Pro Bowl season and a spectacular Super Bowl XXXIV.

The ascension of quarterback Kurt Warner after Trent Green was lost for the year with an August injury. The Rams guessed that Warner would make an adequate backup for the high-priced Green. They guessed wrong. He was the league and Super Bowl MVP.

This is a series of extraordinary events to be marveled at and appreciated, but not duplicated. It culminated in Sunday's wondrous 23-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans, a down-to-the-wire and down-to-the-last-yard Super Bowl.

It worked because Martz found a way to use all that speed, Warner had the determination to prove he belonged, and Faulk had the ability to create mismatch heaven.

In a copycat league, there is no way to put these ingredients together again -- perhaps not even in St. Louis.

Neither is there a reasonable way for other teams to emulate the blitzing schemes of the Titans' 46 defense. Tennessee sacked Warner only once, but tipped at least a half dozen passes and forced him to throw a season-high 21 incompletions.

The Titans utterly shut Warner down in the red zone, where he was 2-for-15 for 15 yards with one touchdown. And they rallied in the second half, even after losing safety Blaine Bishop. Without their two defensive leaders, Bishop and Marcus Robertson, the Titans put the clamps on the best offense in the league.

That's because Titans coach Jeff Fisher has taken the 46 defense to a new level of sophistication. He out-coached Vermeil in the Georgia Dome, and forced the Rams to deviate from their offensive philosophy. The Titans forced the Rams to employ a tight end and/or running back -- sometimes Faulk -- in the mismatch that was right tackle Fred Miller against Tennessee left end Jevon Kearse.

Making Faulk a blocker was the coup of the night for the Titans.

It's taken Fisher 13 years to bring the 46 to this point. You don't copy that overnight.

After watching his magnificent offense get manhandled by Tennessee, Vermeil acknowledged yesterday what had become obvious the last two weeks: that the Rams have gone from a physically tough team to a finesse team.

"I was concerned with Tennessee's toughness," Vermeil said. "We've become such a finesse team that we've lost a little toughness in the trenches. We have to ensure that we rebuild that edge in toughness."

Whether Vermeil is the man to ensure that is uncertain. He dodged the question of whether he might retire now and turn the team over to Martz, the coach-in-waiting.

Sunday night, the Rams' finesse, speed and big-play offense won out -- barely -- over a tougher, more physical team. But that is not the legacy of Super Bowl XXXIV.

The legacy of this game, and this season, is that in the new NFL teams can make dramatic turnarounds with shrewd management, careful coaching, and by getting all the players on the same page.

St. Louis went from 4-12 to the NFL championship. Tennessee went from 8-8 to within a yard of overtime in the Super Bowl.

Who's next?

Candidates include the Ravens and the New York Jets in the AFC, the Carolina Panthers and the New York Giants in the NFC. It may not happen, of course. But at least now, everybody knows it can.

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