It’s January 30th, 2000. We’re at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta for Super Bowl 34 where the Tennessee Titans and St Louis Rams have just six seconds separating them from history. With the ball at the ten, down seven, and no timeouts remaining, the Titans have one last chance to stay alive. Otherwise, this Rams team that came from nowhere will be going home champions.
No matter what happens, one of these franchises will win their first Super Bowl tonight. And once that’s the case - everything that led us to this moment will be overshadowed. But in order to fully appreciate what’s to come, let’s rewind.
Steve McNair has gotten the Titans in position to do what has never been done by a franchise that’s on its third city in just four years. But it wasn’t too long ago that McNair wasn’t guaranteed to be starting in this situation. Following a week one shootout victory over the Bengals, McNair needed surgery for an inflamed disk - which sidelined him until late October. In his absence, veteran Neil O’Donnell kept Tennessee atop the AFC, and played well enough to make Jeff Fisher’s decision a little tougher as McNair prepared to return.
Whether it was mind games or legitimate uncertainty, the starter wasn’t named until just before their week eight matchup - which happened to be against the then-undefeated St. Louis Rams. McNair ended up getting the nod and while his day was far from perfect, he accounted for all three Titans touchdowns in a close win. Tennessee would only lose twice the rest of the way, setting a new franchise record for regular season wins. The previous mark had been set six years earlier in Houston by an Oilers team that unintentionally laid the foundation for this current squad.
After six straight playoff appearances that ended before the conference championship, owner Bud Adams told the ‘93 Oilers team that if they didn’t win the Super Bowl that year, he’d break them up. And after that 12-4 team fell in their opening round, Adams was true to his word. He traded Houston hero Warren Moon to Minnesota, and stuck with career backup Cody Carlson.
The result was a 2-14 season in which Jeff Fisher took over as head coach for the final six games. Despite finishing with the worst record in the league, thanks to a couple of expansion teams, the Oilers had to settle for picking third in the draft. It ended up working out though, as they grabbed their next franchise QB.
And while he played well enough to get them here, the Titans wouldn’t have had the season they did without the guy next to McNair in the backfield. By the time McNair became the full time starter in his third season, Eddie George had already established himself as one of the best runners in the league. He was named the offensive rookie of the year in 1996, and immediately looked to challenge for the league rushing title. Controlling games on the ground with George and the dual-threat McNair would become even more important for a team without a home field advantage, let alone an actual home field. In 1997 with an offense full of potential, Adams moved the franchise a year earlier than he had originally planned.
The first season in Tennessee, still under the Oilers name, they played their home games at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. But since the city knew that the franchise wouldn’t stick around, fewer fans attended their games than the crowds that would come out for the Memphis Maniax in the XFL. Adams realized he needed to get the team to Nashville as soon as possible, so in 1998 they played their home games at Vanderbilt before finally getting their own place for the ‘99 season. To coincide with the opening of Adelphia Coliseum, the team adopted the Titans name and, in front of a sell out crowd, went 8-0 at home. They handed the AFC-leading Jaguars their only two losses of the season, as the Titans offense improved from the last few years. George found the endzone 13-times as he became more involved in the passing game, while McNair ran for another eight touchdowns himself. And despite entering the postseason as a 13-3 wildcard team thanks to the division leading Jaguars, this was a very different team than the Moon-led Oilers that had been unable to find their rhythm in the playoffs.
The Titans have come a long way to get to this point. But this Rams team might have come even further, and thanks to a high-powered offense, they’re now a play away from winning it all.
Going back to the start of the season, there really wasn’t much optimism for this version of the Rams. That offseason they had signed Trent Green to a 16-and-a-half million dollar contract, and traded away their signal caller of the last three years, Tony Banks. Green’s year came to an end though in the third preseason game, and stepping up in his absence was the undrafted free agent Kurt Warner. This was only Warner’s second season in the NFL and he had all of 11 pass attempts to his name. That, plus the fact that their other offseason splash - Marshall Faulk - held out until early August, led to their season outlook ranging from six wins, to worst in the league. Considering the last time they finished .500 or better was 1989, it was easy to look past the amount of talent on their roster.
But once they got Faulk under contract - who had been playing so well that the Colts decided they couldn’t afford him - he’d help take pressure off of Pro Bowl wideout Isaac Bruce. The receiver was back to full health after missing time the last two seasons with hamstring injuries. In the ‘99 draft, the Rams got Bruce a new partner: NC State’s Torry Holt. But with a quarterback not long removed from bagging groceries, few believed in the offensive potential. That changed, very quickly. The Greatest Show on Turf averaged nearly 33 points per game and were never held below 21. Faulk became the second player to ever record one-thousand yards rushing and receiving in a season, and Bruce started all 16 games, finishing as the team leader in receiving yards and touchdowns. The offense was clicking in every way, and helped propel the Rams to be seven-point favorites for their rematch with the Titans.
So if this score holds, Tennessee won’t be the only ones taking a bad beat. And the Rams defense is looking to make that the case.
Sure, a good offense can make things a bit easier for the defense. But St. Louis was winning by dominating on both sides of the ball. At season’s end, no one was tougher to run on than the Rams. With opponents usually playing from behind, they also made life miserable for the opposing quarterback. Defensive end Kevin Carter racked up a league leading 17 sacks, and anything thrown over the middle was in danger, thanks in part to Mike Jones who had four picks and three touchdowns on the season. The unit did their part and the team finished with an ungodly point-differential - over one-hundred points greater than the second highest team and more than tripling that of anyone else. This jump by St. Louis came in the third season under Dick Vermeil, who the Rams had lured out of a 15-year retirement in hopes that he would spark just this sort of turnaround.
And just as he did with the Eagles, Vermeil pulled it off and got this team to the Super Bowl. But even though they’re up seven, their offense hasn’t quite been up to par.
That actually dates back to the NFC Championship game when they hosted the 11-win Buccaneers. In a game where the Rams had a 5-3 halftime lead, they would barely hang on to win 11-6. A week later, and the Rams offense has continued to sputter tonight. They managed to outgain the Titans by a wide margin in the first half, but only had 9 points to show from it thanks to the leg of Jeff Wilkins. Faulk was held in check the entire game, and it wasn’t until halfway through the third-quarter that they found the endzone, when Warner hit Holt from nine yards out. The good news for the Rams was the Titans offense had been stifled all day, and their kicker hadn’t helped them out - as Del Greco missed his first attempt early on, then had his next one blocked at the start of the second half. That, plus the fact no team had ever comeback from a deficit greater than ten points in any Super Bowl, made the lead feel practically insurmountable.
But in the last quarter and a half, the Titans chipped away. Following the Rams touchdown, Tennessee put together a 12-play drive to cover 66-yards, and capped it off with a short Eddie George touchdown. Their two-point conversion attempt failed, keeping it a two-score game, but after a Rams three-and-out, they once again methodically drove down the field. This time covering 79-yards in 13 plays, George got into the endzone a second time to cut the Rams lead to three. Their defense once again forced a three-and-out, which gave McNair and George plenty of time to get the Titans in position to kick the tying field goal - and this time Del Greco didn’t miss. So with 2:12 remaining, Tennessee had pulled off the largest comeback in Super Bowl history.
But now with six seconds left, they’re going to have to do it again. Down seven is much more manageable than 16, but the way they found themselves here is a bit more gut wrenching. That’s because the St. Louis offense finally looked like the St. Louis offense. On the first play from scrimmage after the Tennessee field goal, Warner hung it up near the sideline where Bruce snagged it, made one man miss, and was off. After going up 16-nothing, the Rams offense held the ball for just two of the last 20-plus minutes, but only needed one pass to find themselves back on top.
And although the Titans have put themselves in a decent position just ten yards out, moments ago it looked like they’d be needing a true Hail Mary. From the 32-yard line with one timeout, McNair couldn’t find an open receiver and attempted to extend the play on his own. He somehow found an open Kevin Dyson whose forward progress got the ball to the ten, and the Titans called their final timeout.
And that brings us here. The Titans have one play to score, and the Rams just need to make one tackle to cap off their unexpected season.
Unfortunately, the guy that they have to tackle has already proven more than capable of creating miracles. That is, once again, Kevin Dyson. Dyson is about as unassuming as first round wide receivers go. He led the Titans in receiving yards that year and McNair looked for the second-year receiver far more than any Titan wideout - but in a limited passing attack it didn’t amount to much. Regardless, his regular season stats didn’t matter to Tennessee after what he’d already pulled off in these playoffs. On wildcard weekend, the Titans hosted the 11-5 Bills. Buffalo managed to kick a field goal that put them up one with only 16 seconds remaining. But then, on the ensuing kickoff, well, we got the Music City Miracle.
But back to tonight, Tennessee’s hero has been mostly quiet. Before McNair found him a play earlier to get here, he only had two catches for sixteen yards. Still, all season when the Titans have needed a play, he’s been there. McNair, Dyson, and the rest of the Titans offense have the chance to keep this going and bring a championship to their new home in Nashville. They’ve pulled off the miraculous just to get to this point, and the Rams know better than anyone that all it takes is one play. Their recently unheralded quarterback watches from the sideline, as the Rams hope their defense can make one more stop. One play, ten yards, welcome to a moment in history.