The Greatest Show On Turf: The Dynasty That Never Was

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The Greatest Show On Turf: The Dynasty That Never Was

A dynasty is the best thing in the world. Everybody remembers them. The 60s Packers. The 70s Steelers. The 80s Niners. The 90s Cowboys. And this decade's Patriots.

History reveals, however, that a number of teams reached the brink of a potential dynasty--but advanced no further. These are the teams that won a Super Bowl, or maybe even two. They had dynasty written all over them. Yet they were unable to last long enough to fulfill the so-called requirements of a dynasty: at least three Super Bowl championships.

Meet The Greatest Show on Turf. The 1999-2001 St. Louis Rams.

Before 1999:

In 1998, the St. Louis Rams finished fourth in the five-team NFC West, with a 4-12 record. According to Pro-Football Reference, the Rams were enormous underachievers, as they should have won 5.4 games and lost just 10.6.

The biggest problem for the Rams was the quarterbacking situation. Tony Banks, a second round draft pick just two years earlier, tossed just seven touchdowns against 14 interceptions, while posting a 68.6 passer rating. 36-year-old journeyman Steve Bono, on his sixth NFL team, started two games (69.1 passer rating), while a 27-year-old nobody named Kurt Warner completed 4 of 11 passes for just 39 yards.

As bad as the Rams' passing game was, their running game was even worse. Rookie running back Robert Holcombe rushed for just 230 yards and two touchdowns on 98 carries (with a long of 12 yards). His 2.3 yards per carry is one of the lowest single-season totals in the history of the NFL. Five other players, including Banks, rushed at least 40 times, with four of the five averaging under four yards per carry. When the damage was done, the Rams ranked third-worst in the NFL in yards per carry (3.5).

Defensive end Kevin Carter recorded 12 sacks, the only bright spot on a defense that allowed 378 points, ranking 25th in the 30-team NFL.

Rams' fans were pessimistic following the end of the 1998 season and expectations for 1999 were grim.

1999:

On February 15th, 1999, the Rams signed free agent quarterback Trent Green to a four-year, $16.5 million dollar deal. Green had tossed 23 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions for the Redskins in 1998 and was immediately slated in as the Rams' starter for the 1999 season.

Vermeil had traded for three-time Pro Bowl running back Marshall Faulk in the offseason. Faulk had accumulated a league-leading 2227 yards from scrimmage in 1998, which was the sixth highest single season total ever. He also finished fourth in the league in receptions and added 10 touchdowns.

Vermeil also selected wide receiver Torry Holt with the sixth overall pick in the NFL draft. Holt finished a sensational college career, which saw him nominated for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best wide receiver.

Finally, Vermeil named Mike Martz the team's offensive coordinator. Martz had previously worked with the Rams as a wide receivers coach, where he helped Isaac Bruce to blossom into one of the top young receiving threats in the league. Martz had spent the previous two seasons with the Washington Redskins as Trent Green's personal coach.

He had also learned a new offensive system that he would implement in 1999. Martz had also studied the offenses of former Hall of Fame coach Sid Gilliam, as well as Chargers' offensive mastermind Don Coryell. Martz's new offense called for a high-scoring attack in which as many as five wide receiver would stretch the field.

Following one of the more impressive offseasons in recent NFL history, Rams fans were optimistic for the first time in a long time. Despite not having a winning season since the Jim Everett days of 1989, many hoped that the addition of Green, Faulk, Holt, and Martz would be enough to reach the postseason for the first time all decade.

And then the season appeared to go right down the drain when Green suffered a season-ending knee injury on a hit by Rodney Harrison in a preseason game.

Instead of signing a veteran quarterback to start, head coach Dick Vermeil made one of the gutsiest coaching decisions in NFL history, choosing unproven no-name 27-year-old Kurt Warner as his starter.

Warner responded with one of the single greatest individual seasons in the history of the National Football League.

He threw for 41 touchdowns, joining Dan Marino as the only players in NFL history to throw 40 touchdowns in a season. His 4353 passing yards ranked second in the NFL and were the 14th highest single-season total ever. His 109.2 passer rating? Third highest ever. He led the NFL in yards per attempt and completion percentage, and earned Most Valuable Player honors.

Marshall Faulk rushed 253 times for 1381 yards and seven touchdowns. He also caught 87 passes for 1048 yards and five touchdowns. His 5.5 yards per rush led the NFL. He also became just the second player in the history of the NFL to post 1000 rushing yards and 1000 receiving yards in the same season. His 2429 total yards set a single-season record. For his efforts, Faulk was named Offensive Player of the Year, while finishing second in Most Valuable Player voting.

Isaac Bruce grabbed 77 balls for 1165 yards and 12 touchdowns. Rookie Torry Holt caught 52 passes for 788 yards and six touchdowns. Second-year receiver and return man Az Zahir Hakim recorded 36 catches for 677 yards and eight touchdowns, a phenomenal 18.8 yards per catch.

On defense, Kevin Carter turned in an incredible season, tallying 17 of the Rams' 57 sacks. An incredible nine different players intercepted at least two passes, led by cornerback Todd Lyght's team-high six.

The Rams finished the season with 13 wins, capturing their first division title since moving to St. Louis in 1995, and earning home-field advantage in the postseason.

Quarterbacks tend to struggle in their first taste of postseason action. Not Kurt Warner. He tossed five touchdown passes in the divisional playoffs, as the Rams steamrolled over the Vikings 49-37.

The Rams struggled in the NFC championship, before a Kurt Warner to Ricky Proehl touchdown pass with under five minutes remaining gave the Rams an 11-6 lead they would not relinquish. For just the second time in franchise history, the Rams were NFC champions.

In the Super Bowl, the Rams opened up a 16-0 lead against the Tennessee Titans, only to see the game tied 16-16 with 2:12 left in the game. Enter Kurt Warner.

Warner tossed a 73-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce, giving the Rams a 23-16 lead with 1:54 to play. Steve McNair drove the Titans down the field but on the final play of the game, Rams' linebacker Mike Jones made a game-ending tackle of wide receiver Kevin Dyson on the one yard line.

Jones's play is known simply as "The Tackle" and was voted by ESPN as the second greatest moment in Super Bowl history, as well as the greatest clutch play in Super Bowl history.

Kurt Warner captured Super Bowl MVP honors, thanks to two touchdown passes and a new Super Bowl record of 414 passing yards, capping off a thrilling season that ESPN considered "to be the greatest one-year wonder in the history of the National Football League."

The Rams ranked first in the NFL in total yards and total points scored. Defensively, they ranked sixth in yards allowed and fourth in points. Their run defense ranked first in the NFL in fewest yards allowed and fewest rushing touchdowns allowed.

The Rams set a new single-season record in point differential, with 284. Had the Rams not rested their starters in the final regular season game against the Eagles, they likely would have posted a point differential well above 300. They easily would have won 14 games. Had they held the Eagles to fewer than 14 points, they would have posted the NFL's number one defense in points scored and would have joined the 1972 Miami Dolphins and the 1996 Green Bay Packers as the only NFL teams to lead the NFL in most points scored and fewest points allowed.

They were a team so dominant that many rank them as the greatest single-season team in NFL history. In fact, in 2008, Whatifsports conducted a test, where they took the 42 Super Bowl champions and played them against each other 100 times. The 1999 St. Louis Rams walked away as the greatest team in NFL history, winning 77.1% of their games.

After the season, Dick Vermeil retired from coaching in the National Football League and Mike Martz was named the team's new head coach.

2000:

The Rams' offense continued its dominant ways in the 2000 season, scoring 540 points, which was the third highest single-season total in NFL history. In each of the first eight games, the Rams scored 34 or more points, including 41 or more six times.

Reigning MVP Kurt Warner proved that his 1999 season was no fluke, throwing for 300 yards in each of the first six games of the season, which tied an NFL record. He threw 19 touchdowns during that stretch.

Then disaster struck, as Warner broke his hand and missed five starts.

Trent Green finally had a chance to show the Rams what he could do and he didn't disappoint, throwing for 16 touchdowns and only five interceptions, while posting a 101.4 passer rating.

The combination of Warner and Green helped the Rams set an NFL single-season record with 7335 total yards, including 5492 through the air.

Marshall Faulk turned in arguably the greatest season by a running back in the last half-century, despite missing two games due to injury. He rushed 253 times for 1359 yards and 18 touchdowns. He caught 81 passes for 830 yards and eight touchdowns. His 26 touchdowns set a new NFL single-season record and his 5.4 yards per carry led the league. Faulk's 160 points scored were one fewer than the entire Cincinnati Bengals offense scored that season.

Even more incredibly, Faulk didn't fumble the football once. Had he played a full season, Faulk would likely have scored 30 touchdowns and broken his own single-season record for total yards. Faulk ran away with the Most Valuable Player award and earned his second consecutive Offensive Player of the Year award.

Second-year player Torry Holt caught 82 passes for 1635 yards, the ninth highest single-season total in NFL history. He scored six touchdowns and led the league with 19.9 yards per catch. Isaac Bruce caught 87 passes for 1471 yards and nine touchdowns. Az-Zahir Hakim added 53 catches for 734 yards and four touchdowns, while averaging more than 15 yards per punt return. Even kicker Jeff Wilkins posted a career year, converting on all 17 field goal tries.

It was during the 2000 season that the St. Louis Rams' offense earned the nickname "The Greatest Show On Turf." Following a 57-31 shellacking of the hapless San Diego Chargers in week five, ESPN analyst Chris Berman referred to the Rams' offense as the "Greatest Show On Earth," which was later changed to the term "Greatest Show on Turf" to suit the Rams' playing conditions.

The defense, however, was absolutely dreadful.

Although cornerback Dexter McCleon intercepted eight passes and defensive ends Grant Wistrom and Kevin Carter each posted double-digit sack totals, the Rams ranked dead last in the NFL in points allowed, with 471. Seven times the Rams allowed 30 or more points, including 54 to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Rams ranked near the bottom in every major defensive category, after finishing near the top the year before.

Despite starting the season 6-0, the Rams struggled to reach the postseason, winning in New Orleans in the season's final game to secure a wild-card berth.

In the postseason, the Rams faced the Saints for the second consecutive week. Kurt Warner, who had healed from his broken hand, closed out a season that saw him finish second in the MVP voting by throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble. Marshall Faulk was held to a season-low of 24 yards rushing. The Rams still managed 28 points, but as many expected, were let down by their defense, which allowed the winning points to score on a field goal in overtime.

2001:

The Rams had to decide between Kurt Warner and Trent Green as their starting quarterback in the offseason. Although Green had performed brilliantly during Warner's injury, Warner was still the reigning MVP who had finished second in voting the year before, despite only playing in 11 games.

Warner was named the Rams' starting quarterback and Trent Green left to join the Kansas City Chiefs.

In the offseason, an incredible nine of the eleven defensive starters were cut. Cornerback Dexter McCleon and defensive end Grant Wistrom were the only two defensive starters retained for the 2001 season. The Rams signed former Buccaneers' linebackers coach Lovie Smith as their new defensive coordinator. The Rams had three first-round picks and used them all on defensive players. The Rams also acquired six different players via trade or free agency, including veteran cornerback Aeneas Williams, who had been selected to six consecutive Pro Bowls with the Arizona Cardinals.

Perhaps no team in NFL history had seen such a dramatic change in its defense from one year to the next.

The Rams began the 2001 season with six straight wins, becoming the first team to start three consecutive seasons 6-0.

Their much-improved defense allowed just 273 points, a 198 point increase over the previous season.

The Rams steamrolled through the remainder of the regular season, winning 14 games and earning home-field advantage throughout the postseason for the second time in three years.

The Rams faced Favre and the Packers in the divisional round, where they turned in their most impressive game of the past three seasons. The Rams scored 45 points and allowed just 17. They intercepted Favre six times, returning three for touchdowns, while forcing eight total turnovers. In the NFC championship game, the Rams struggled early against the Eagles, before closing with a 29-24 win.

Their second Super Bowl appearance in three seasons came against the surprise New England Patriots, a team that the Rams were favored to defeat by 14 points.

Super Bowl XXXVI might be the signature game of the Greatest Show On Turf.

Despite outgaining the Patriots 427 to 267 in total yards, the Rams lost 20-17, thanks to three turnovers and a walkoff 48 yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. Kurt Warner threw for 365 yards, the second most in Super Bowl history, and although his lone touchdown pass tied the game with 1:30 to play in the fourth quarter, it wasn't enough to make up for a costly interception touchdown to Ty Law in the second quarter.

After the season, Warner earned his second Most Valuable Player award. His 4830 passing yards were the second highest total in NFL history and his 36 touchdown passes ranked sixth. Even more importantly, he stayed healthy, playing in all 16 games.

Marshall Faulk earned his record third consecutive Offensive Player of the Year award, rushing 260 times for 1382 yards and 12 touchdowns. He led the league in yards per carry for the third consecutive season. Faulk also caught 83 balls for 765 yards and nine scores. His 21 touchdowns tied for the tenth highest single-season total in NFL history. For the fourth consecutive season (the last three with the Rams), Faulk topped 2000 yards from scrimmage.

Receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce turned in their usual spectacular season. Holt caught 81 passes for 1363 yards and seven touchdowns, while Bruce grabbed 64 passes for 1106 yards and six scores.

Tackle Orlando Pace turned in his third consecutive Pro Bowl season, cementing his reputation as the best offensive lineman in the National Football League.

The Rams became the first team in NFL history to score more than 500 points in three consecutive seasons. They won double-digit games for the third straight season. For the second time in three seasons, they represented the NFC in the Super Bowl.

After 2001:

Everything fell apart for the St. Louis Rams after their embarrassing loss to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI.

Expectations were still extremely high going into the 2002 season and why not? One fluke loss in the Super Bowl shouldn't signify the end of an era. The offense was still ridiculously scary and the defense was becoming one of the best in the NFL.

Although Warner was 30, he still easily had five to six years left. Marshall Faulk was only 28. Bruce was only 29 and Holt was just 25. All five offensive linemen were under 31, and superstar left tackle Orlando Pace was just 26. Eight of the starters were in their twenties and at 33, Aeneas Williams was the oldest starter on the team.

The team had won 37 regular season games and five postseason games over the past three seasons. Their prolific offense had scored 1569 points over the three previous seasons, an average of 523 per season, making them the only team in history to average more than 30 points per game over a three-year span (32.7). Kurt Warner was playing like the greatest quarterback in the NFL and Marshall Faulk had turned in arguably the greatest three-year stretch by any running back ever.

Although the defense had performed terribly in 2000, they gave up just 273 points in 2001, an improvement of 198 points (more than 12 per game). Practically the entire 2001 draft had been devoted to defense, and two of the Rams' picks had already worked their way into the starting lineup.

Simply put, the Rams seemed to be built for success and it seemed as if they could continue their winning ways for many more seasons. Despite the Eagles showing flair in 2001 and the Bears posting a top-notch defense, the Rams were still considered to be the cream of the crop heading into 2002.

But then the unthinkable happened.

The Rams lost their first five games of the 2002 season, which marked a half dozen consecutive losses, dating back to the Super Bowl. A five-game winning streak provided short-lived hope for Rams fans, who watched a forgettable season end with just seven wins.

Kurt Warner, the man responsible for three of the most prolific offensive seasons in NFL history, was now responsible for the Rams' offense sputtering.

He threw just one touchdown against seven interceptions in the season's first three games, all losses, before breaking a finger against the Cowboys in the fourth game. He played only two more games the rest of the season, tallying three touchdown passes against 11 interceptions, for a despicable 67.4 passer rating. His eight fumbles gave Warner an average of 3.17 interceptions or fumbles per game in 2002.

32-year-old backup Jamie Martin started two games and played in three others, throwing for seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The other seven games were started by the unheralded third-string Marc Bulger, who performed brilliantly. Bulger won six of seven starts and posted a triple-digit passer rating.

Faulk had a subpar season (by his standards) in 2002, tallying 'only' 1490 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns. After fumbling just four times in the 44 games from 1999 to 2001, he fumbled four times, while making just 10 starts.

However, Holt and Bruce still performed well, as usual, and despite an off year by the defense, there was reason to believe that the Rams could still remain dominant in 2003.

And they did...a little. They did win 12 games and earned a bye in the postseason, but they lost in double overtime to the eventual NFC champion Carolina Panthers.

Kurt Warner was named as the Rams' starter entering the 2003 season, but lost his job after the season opener, in which he fumbled an unheard of SIX times.

Marc Bulger replaced Warner, and although he did earn a Pro Bowl invitation, his 22 interceptions led the league and his 81.4 passer rating was barely above average. The Rams' spectacular aerial attack would be no more.

Marshall Faulk turned 30 in the offseason--the dreaded age of NFL running back--and continued his downward spiral, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry and accumulating only 1108 total yards.

The Rams drafted Steven Jackson in the first round of the 2004 draft to eventually replace the great Marshall Faulk, and although Jackson would earn a Pro Bowl selection in 2006, he was no Marshall Faulk. After the season, the Rams cut Warner, meaning the two-time MVP was officially a free agent. 26-year-old Marc Bulger was officially named the team's starting quarterback.

In 2004, Bulger had a fine season, throwing for 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The Rams finished 8-8 and qualified for the playoffs as the top wild card team in the NFC. They were also arguably the worst playoff team in NFL history, posting a -73 point differential. They actually won a game, defeating the Seahawks on the road, but were thoroughly manhandled by the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional playoffs.

Since the end of the 2004 season, the Rams have failed to qualify for the postseason or post a winning record. Over the past three seasons, the Rams have won a combined six games in the National Football League, a far cry from a team that used to start out every season with six straight wins.

So why didn't the Rams ever turn into a dynasty??

Well, for one thing, the Greatest Show On Turf was--believe it or not--an absolute turnover machine. The high-powered Rams turned the football over 109 times in three seasons, for an average of 2.27 times per game. By comparison, the average NFL team turned the ball over just 91 times in those three seasons. Just seven times, all victories, did the Rams play a full game without turning over the football.

By comparison, they turned the ball over four or more times in eight different games. Interceptions thrown or fumbles lost, you name it... The Rams specialized in 'em. The Rams registered a combined -15 in turnover differential during the Greatest Show On Turf years. Other than the turnover problems, the Rams had no major weaknesses.

They had a record-setting offense and an above average defense. They had size and speed. They had depth. They just died out way too quickly. They had inconsistency, especially on defense. Questionable coaching decisions from Mike Martz, who turned out to be a poor head coach.

When you hear dynasties in pro football, you hear the Packers, Steelers, 49ers, Cowboys, and Patriots. You won't hear the Rams. And you shouldn't.

Two Super Bowl appearance in three seasons--one win over a much inferior team and one loss to a much inferior team--doesn't constitute a dynasty. It's difficult to criticize a team that won a Super Bowl title, but when I hear of the Greatest Show On Turf, I don't think of what was.

I think of what could have been.

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