The Los Angeles Rams’ franchise history, as befits a team from the entertainment industry’s company town, drowns in drama often draped in dazzle.
The Rams’ Super Bowl history, one moment aside, defines another D-word: disappointment.
In the Super Bowl’s first decade plus, it was disappointment in not making the big game. Whether getting waxed by the waning, aging Packers in the 1967 playoffs after an 11-1-2 regular season, getting blasted at home by Dallas as NFC Championship Game favorites (1975 and 1978 seasons) or constantly stumbling over Minnesota (1974, 1976, 1977), nobody choked with more predictability.
As sometimes happens with franchises, a lesser version got farther and they made their first Super Bowl appearance in Super Bowl XIV, facing the last of the mighty 1970s Steelers teams. Given no chance, the Rams fought with a valor some doubted they possessed. But, in the end, the Steelers were the Steelers and the Rams were the Rams.
Before the Rams knew it, they shared the L.A. metropolitan area with one Super Bowl-winning team, the Raiders, and shared the NFC West with the team of the 1980s, San Francisco. The 49ers did everything better, even the Rams’ trademark. The Rams practically invented the quarterback controversy when they had future Hall of Famers Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin running their still-record-holding 1950 and 1951 offenses and recycled that plot often for the next 35 years. Then, San Francisco did it in luxurious fashion, Joe Montana vs. Steve Young.
Unable to get the publicly funded new stadium some NFL teams see as appropriate tithing from the community by 1996, the Rams took their bad football to St. Louis, a community missing bad football since the Cardinals left for Arizona in 1987.
Suddenly, in an origin story that belongs in a comic book, the Rams made a trade here, a smart draft there, got lucky with a backup quarterback from where? and found the chemistry to create lightning. The Greatest Show on Turf hurled thunderbolts at the NFL.
Who could stop them? They played too fast, too synchronized. Surely after their project-to-penthouse season that culminated in winning Super Bowl XXXIV, they’d have a few more of those before Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulk stopped running under Kurt Warner passes.
Or, maybe they’d wind up the NFL’s Twin Peaks.
SUPER BOWL XIV
PITTSBURGH 31, LOS ANGELES RAMS 19
▪ Jan. 20, 1980
▪ Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California
▪ MVP: Pittsburgh QB Terry Bradshaw, 14 of 21 for 309 yards, three touchdowns.
All those 10-to-12 win seasons in the 1970s, including one season leading the NFL in both offense and defense, and THIS HBO comedy script of a year was when the Rams got to the Super Bowl?
In April, owner Carroll Rosenbloom drowned in waters off Golden Beach, a death his son, Rams Vice President Steve Rosembloom, found suspicious. Daddy Rosenbloom died before executing a new will that would’ve given son Steve full control of the Rams. So, 70 percent of the franchise fell to his second wife, former Miami singer and TV personality Georgia Frontiere, a brassy blond who had been with Carroll almost 20 years. By the time the season started, she tired of infighting between general manager Dan Kosterman and Rosenbloom the younger. Steve Rosenbloom was fired.
The Rams usually wrapped up the NFC West just after Halloween, when the rest of the division stopped masquerading as contenders. But this year, New Orleans dogged the Rams until the end, a chase made more perilous for Los Angeles when quarterback Pat Haden broke his thumb in the 10th game. Backup Vince Ferragamo owned an arm and the experience of watching Haden for two and a half seasons.
Yet, in the NFC Divisional Round, Ferragamo threw three touchdown passes, including a 50-yarder that sizzled past six Dallas defenders to Billy Waddy for the game-winning touchdown. That thrilling 21-19 upset was followed by 60 minutes of watching grass grow under the feet of two failing offenses in the NFC Championship Game. Sure, both Tampa Bay and the Rams featured A-list defenses. But only the Rams saw any beauty in winning 9-0 on three Frank Corral field goals, reversing a regular season loss on the same Tampa Stadium field.
The quarterback owned only seven starts. Halfback Wendell Tyler could thrill you with moves or with the question of where he’d fumble the ball. Defensive end Jack Youngblood brought to the Super Bowl a leg he broke his leg against Dallas and played on in Tampa.
But they were in the Super Bowl. On the other sideline, Pittsburgh, defending Super Bowl champions, winners of three of the last five Supers.
That’s the Steel Curtain defense more than supported by the NFL’s No. 1-ranked offense. At least the Rams were somewhat at home, Pasadena’s Rose Bowl being in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Of course, Steelers fans overran the Rose Bowl and pregame ceremonies featured the unfurling of a giant Terrible Towel.
For three quarters, Ferragamo and Tyler played steady games devoid of turnovers throughout the most back-and-forth Super Bowl ever: 3-0, Pittsburgh; 7-3, Rams; 10-7, Pittsburgh; 10-10, then 13-10, Rams at halftime; 17-13, Pittsburgh on a 47-yard bomb to Lynn Swann; 19-17, Rams on a halfback option pass to Waddy after Waddy outwrestled Ron Johnson for a 50-yard bomb.
The Rams intercepted Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw for the third time near the end of the third quarter, this time near the Los Angeles end zone. As the quarter ended, the Rams gleefully sprinted to the other end of the field to show the champs they possessed the giddyup to drive for a game-clinching score.
Having the desire and the energy for a task doesn’t always get it done. And the next time the Steelers had the ball,
So, of course, Bradshaw reached back and hit John Stallworth, for a 73-yard touchdown on 60 Prevent Slot Hook and Go. The play hadn’t worked all week in practice. And Jack Lambert picked off Ferragamo with the Rams moving toward another lead change. Reprising 60 Prevent, Bradshaw and Stallworth connected for 45 yards to set up Franco Harris’ clinching touchdown.
Few Super Bowls have been as well played. Nobody fumbled. All facets of the game for each team – offense, defense, special teams for both teams – could claim highlights. Some Steelers admitted Ferragamo outplayed Bradshaw overall.
But this cable comedy of a season ended with a song of reality playing over the closing credits. Dark, black (and gold) reality.
SUPER BOWL XXXIV
ST. LOUIS RAMS 23, TENNESSEE 16
▪ Jan. 30, 2000
▪ Georgia Dome, Atlanta
▪ MVP: St. Louis QB Kurt Warner, 414 yards passing, two touchdowns.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen the clips, inextricably linked as the moment the Rams slipped on guano and fell into gold.
There’s St. Louis Rams quarterback and hometown guy Trent Green writhing on the TWA Dome turf that looks way too hard and unnaturally green to love, the way all dome turf did back then. And there’s Rams coach Dick Vermeil, as unfailingly optimistic as famously weepy, saying the Rams would rally around backup quarterback Kurt Warner and play good football.
Few teams remade their offense the way the Rams did that 1999 offseason. For a second and a fifth round pick, they got a McLaren of an all-purpose back from Indianapolis, Marshall Faulk. They signed Green as a free agent. They drafted smooth, swift wide receiver Torry Holt from North Carolina to go with already present Isaac Bruce, Az-Akir Hakim and Ricky Proehl.
And they hired Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. Martz updated the wide-open, downfield attack that Sid Gillman popularized in the 1960s with the American Football League’s Chargers and that Don Coryell refined with the 1970s St. Louis Cardinals, then the 1980s Chargers.
Sometimes, inventors need luck. Green directed some powerhouse offenses for Vermeil in Kansas City during the 2000s. But Warner’s accuracy, his passes beautifully intersecting with receivers downfield or settling down into Faulk’s hands in stride, accelerated how fast the Rams played.
And that hard, green track in the TWA Dome might as well have been a runway. The Rams flew. Thus, the Greatest Show on Turf was born.
It took over half a season before anybody bought into the perennially pathetic Rams. They led the NFL in yards (400.8 per game) and, assisted by seven defensive touchdowns, points (32.9 per game). Warner’s 41 touchdown passes, 4,353 passing yards and 65.1 completion percentage made him NFL MVP.
Trailing opponents felt forced out of running games that had limited success with Pro Bowlers D’marco Farr and Kevin Carter on the line. So, the defense allowed the fewest rushing yards (74.0 per game) and Carter led the league in sacks. The Rams allowed the fourth fewest points.
Their 13-3 record gave them the No. 1 NFC seed and allowed them to host the first NFL playoff games in St. Louis, Cardinals or Rams. A pinball-machine 35-point second half propelled them to a 49-37 Divisional Round win against Minnesota. Their NFC Championship Game against Tampa Bay provided almost as little scoring as the same game 20 years before, but more drama as the Rams scored late for an 11-6 win.
(A fourth quarter catch by Tampa Bay wide receiver Bert Emanuel was ruled no catch because the ball touched the ground, though clearly in Emanuel’s control. That led to a rule change allowing a catch if the ball touches the ground, but the receiver obviously is controlling the ball without the ground’s help.)
Onto The Transplant Bowl. Tennessee, the former Houston Oilers, were in their first year with the new “Titans” nickname and new uniforms. The Music City Miracle got them out of the Wild Card round against Buffalo and they dumped Indianapolis and Jacksonville, which went 15-0 that season against everybody but Tennessee. The Titans’ tough, physical team identity was epitomized by running back Eddie George and quarterback Steve McNair.
This was Ali vs. Frazier, football version. Stylish Ali popped jabs and combinations with ease: the Rams moved inside the Tennessee 20 on their first five drives. All that got were three field goals, a missed field goal and a fumbled field goal snap. The Rams connected with a big punch in the third on a touchdown pass to Holt for a 16-0 lead.
On the verge of being TKO’d, Frazier came alive and body punching Tennessee offense began wilting the Rams. Two, pounding drives over seven minutes in length ended in George touchdowns. A missed two-point conversion meant Al Del Greco’s field goal with 2:12 left only tied the game, 16-16.
In Super Bowl XIV, the Rams lost after the NFL’s No. 1 offense connected on a 73-yard touchdown pass to take the lead the final time. Before that, the Rams most recent NFL Championship Game appearance had been 1951 when they had the NFL’s No. 1 offense and won 24-17 on a 73-yard touchdown pass.
Synchronicity through the ages. On the first play from scrimmage after Tennessee tied it, Warner fired downfield to Isaac Bruce. Bruce leaped in stride inside defensive back Anthony Dorsett and raced to a 73-yard touchdown with 1:54 remaining.
This wasn’t Manila. Frazier could come out for the last round. McNair drove Tennessee downfield to the Rams 10. With no timeouts and six seconds left on the clock, McNair hit Kevin Dyson, in stride, on a slant. Rams linebacker Mike Jones made a textbook tackle of Dyson to keep him a yard short.
Vermeil retired (for a little while). Martz became head coach. Faulk and Bruce still had plenty of years left. Though Warner wasn’t a rookie, he and Holt were just getting started.
SUPER BOWL XXXVI
NEW ENGLAND 20, ST. LOUIS 17
▪ Feb. 3, 2002
▪ Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans
▪ MVP: New England QB Tom Brady, 16 of 27, 145 yards passing, one touchdown, one game-winning drive.
The Rams scored over 500 points and had the NFL MVP (Warner, Faulk, Warner) for the third consecutive season. But, they were back in the Super Bowl after a one-year absence because their defense was back after a one-year absence. A rebuilt unit coordinated by Lovie Smith and led in the back by future Hall of Fame cornerback Aeneas Williams finished with a No. 3 ranking. They even surpassed the 1999 team in regular season record, 14-2, including 8-0 on the road.
In every way, the Rams looked even better than two years before.
And who did the AFC present? A starless team led by a backup quarterback who hadn’t started a game before this season. A team that should’ve been gone in the Divisional Round but for a previously obscure rule and an ice-hearted kicker who could execute in the snow. What was this, Super Bowl XIV Reverse Redux?
But New England also brought head coach Bill Belichick, the Giants’ defensive coordinator when they held Buffalo’s K-Gun to 19 points in Super Bowl XXV. Belichick always seemed to know the most significant foundation chunk to subtract from an opponent’s offense. And, with the Rams, he focused on Faulk.
As the game started, the Patriots pass rushers hit running back Marshall Faulk on their way to Kurt Warner to disrupt the Rams’ timing. Ty Law jumped an Isaac Bruce out route and raced to a 47-yard interception return touchdown that gave the Patriots a 7-3 lead. Another turnover, a Terrell Buckley fumble recovery, set up the 8-yard Tom Brady-David Givens touchdown pass: 14-3, Pats at halftime.
But the potentially crushing turnover, a 97-yard touchdown fumble return by Tebucky Jones with New England up 17-3 in the fourth, got nullified by a defensive holding penalty. The Rams scored on that drive and on a 26-yard pass to Ricky Proehl to tie the game with 1:30 left.
Now, surely, the Patriots would play for overtime where the Rams, carrying the momentum of the moment, would triumph.
Instead, though out of timeouts, New England’s staff trusted Brady to drive the Patriots’ 53 yards to the Rams’ 30. That cold-hearted kicker, Adam Vinatieri, nailed a 48-yard field goal as time ran out.
Oh, well. Surely The Greatest Show on Turf hadn’t closed. They’d be back. This New England bunch? Probably a one year thing...