Forgotten Greatness: The 1999 St. Louis Rams

Ben GunbyAnalyst IJanuary 23, 2008

On a certain network’s morning radio show, the two co-hosts were dissecting a list compiled by another major media outlet of the NFL's ten all-time greatest single season teams in league history. I’m not here to address the make-up of the list, or the validity of it. I’m here to address the response to one of the teams on this particular list. I'm here to debunk this myth that the 1999 St. Louis Rams were just some offensive juggernaut who have no place among the great NFL champions of years past. I’m not here to go on a case by case study of where exactly those Rams should fall on such a list, but rather that their inclusion is not as absurd as was implied.

Offensively, nobody in their right mind could question anyone’s inclusion of the “Greatest Show on Turf” as among the greatest offensive units the game of football has ever seen. While there have been many other teams with great duos (Montana and Rice), trios (Aikman, Irvin, Smith) and quartets (Bradshaw, Stallworth, Swann, Harris), perhaps no team had the number of truly explosive playmakers this Rams team possessed. Kurt Warner and Marshal Faulk’s 1999 seasons were among the greatest ever by a player at their respective positions, and they so came from two teammates in the same season. Furthermore, unlike great statistical seasons put together by quarterback/receiver duos (Brady and Moss, Montana and Rice), this was a running back/quarterback duo in which case the statistics of one don’t directly affect the stats of the others. Granted, Faulk’s 1,000 plus yards receiving certainly come in large part due to Kurt Warner, however, much of what Faulk did as a receiver was more the product of the system, the play calling, and Faulk’s incredible skills with the ball in his hands.

Warner’s impact was obviously felt with the incredible numbers put up via the pass catchers for the Rams during that 1999 campaign. Az-Zahir Hakim battled Ricky Proehl and tight end Roland Williams for the role of fourth option in this passing offense. A testament to how deadly this offense truly was is the fact that despite being option number four, Hakim still caught eight touchdown passes, only two more than Williams.

These Rams though weren’t just blessed with perhaps the greatest overall complement of skill players the NFL has ever seen, they were blessed with talented players up front. Adam Timmerman and Tom Nutten were both more than a solid choice on the offensive front, but the line’s anchor, Orlando Pace, will go down in history as one of the greatest offensive linemen to ever strap up a chinstrap. 

On offense alone, the Rams were as great as any team ever. Whether that’s from a production, statistical, or talent standpoint. Additionally, being a great team of such elite greatness requires the other side of the ball to carry it’s weight, and this is where most misconceptions of the Rams exist. For some reason, people seem to assume this Rams team was mediocre, or slightly above average, at best, on defense. Where these assumptions are derived from is beyond me, and beyond anyone else who bothered to actually pay attention to this team.

People seem quick to forget, overlook, or ignore, the fact that no team in the NFL allowed fewer points than the Rams, and no team allowed fewer overall yards than the Rams. They were 9th in turnover differential as well. Only five times all season did a team rush for more than 75 yards against the Rams defense, and only three had more than 350 yards of offense in a single game (conversely, the Rams reached that mark 11 times)

This was a defense that was good enough to have future all-pros Dre Bly and Leonard Little used primarily as reserves or in specialist roles. Todd Lyght and Dexter McCleon combined for ten interceptions at the cornerback positions. London Fletcher had 90 tackles at linebacker and Mike Jones provided equal quality of a player. Defensive lineman Grant Wistrom and D’Marco Farr combined for 15 sacks, while Kevin Carter had 17 on his own.

Jeff Wilkens was a solid kicker, and Tony Horne and the aforementioned Akim ran back a combined three kickoffs and punts for touchdowns, meaning the scoring wasn’t limited to just the offense. Their special teams coverage units weren’t top notch in the NFL, but you would be hard pressed to call them a liability.

In addition to the incredible amount of talent dispersed through all phases of the game, the Rams had another earmark of a great team. They had a great head coach. Dick Vermeil’s place may not be on the Mt. Rushmore of NFL coaches, but he certainly hashed out a very good NFL career in a variety of places.

The Rams proved they could win by whatever means necessary. They needed lots of points to get out of their first playoff game, and they got them (49 against the Vikings). In their ensuing two they had to rely on defense, and they did, allowing a combined 22 points to the Buccaneers and Titans as they closed their Super Bowl run. Nobody scored more points, allowed fewer, gained more yards, allowed fewer, or won more games in 1999 than the St. Louis Rams. They won 12 games over the course of the season by 16 points or more. What more does a team have to do to be mentioned among the greats of all-time? Perhaps the more appropriate question is just what more CAN a team do?