Rams Express strikes in time

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 24, 2000

The Associated Press

The NFL’s most dynamic offense was dead in the water Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ dominating defense.

Monday, January 24, 2000

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The NFL’s most dynamic offense was dead in the water Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ dominating defense. No big plays were to be had for 55 minutes.

But this is a team of unshakeable faith and unbending resolution. And they found a way: Kurt Warner’s 30-yard strike to a leaping Ricky Proehl down the left sideline for an 11-6 victory in the NFC championship game.

”He is the long-lost receiver,” NFL MVP Warner said of the man whose catch lifted St. Louis (15-3) into the Super Bowl against Tennessee. ”We’ve got so much talent that he becomes a situation guy. But we know we can count on him when the chips are down.”

Rarely were the chips down like this in the Rams’ magical season. Their Midwest Express offense, which led the league with 526 points (third most in league history), had sputtered, particularly when near the end zone. Warner, whose 41 touchdown passes placed him with Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks to surpass 40 in a season, was picked off three times. He was hurried, harried and hunting for just the right connection.

”We just didn’t finish drives,” Warner said.

They finished this one, started when Bucs rookie Shaun King was picked off by another rookie, Dre’ Bly, at midfield. Proehl sped down the sideline and made the biggest catch of his 10-year career.

”I’m the guy they’re always trying to get rid of,” said Proehl, who made six receptions for 100 yards and his first TD of the season. ”I’m the guy they are always trying to replace. You know, ‘There’s 100 Ricky Proehls out there.’ I beg to differ.”

The Bucs (12-6) probably do, as well. While they were putting the clamps on stars Warner, Marshall Faulk – the Offensive Player of the Year with a record 2,429 total yards who gained only 44 yards rushing and 5 yards receiving – and Isaac Bruce with their quick, physical defense, they couldn’t stop Proehl or rookie Torry Holt (seven receptions, 68 yards).

And they couldn’t get into the end zone, managing only Martin Gramatica’s field goals of 25 and 23 yards.

Still, it appeared to be enough, thanks to the monstrous defensive effort.

”We brought them into our zone, we brought them into our misery,” said Warren Sapp, the Defensive Player of the Year, ”and we had them down 6-5 and just kept battling … and it came down to one play.”

That one play got the Rams into their second Super Bowl; they beat Tampa Bay 9-0 20 years ago for the NFC crown, then fell to Pittsburgh for the NFL title. The Bucs have never reached the Super Bowl.

”We always felt like we had the capability to shut this offense down,” Sapp added. ”We had plenty of opportunities to put this ballclub away.”

But the Bucs don’t have the same killer instinct on offense as they do defensively. Even when they staged a last-ditch drive, King took two of his five sacks before misfiring on his final three passes – including one that was ruled incomplete after a replay review.

Plus, the Rams got a strong effort from their unheralded defense, which yielded only 203 yards and picked up a safety when Pro Bowl center Tony Mayberry’s snap to King in a shotgun sailed high. King scrambled back to knock it out of the end zone.

”Nobody gives our defense the credit,” Faulk said. ”Coming into this game, they were all taking about the Tampa Bay defense. Our defense held every time.”

The offense, which also got Jeff Wilkins’ 24-yard field goal, will need a better performance in Atlanta next Sunday. The Titans handed the Rams their first loss of the season, 24-21 in Nashville, in Game 7. Tennessee won the AFC crown in Jacksonville 33-14, but opened as 8-point underdogs.

”We know we’re in for just as tough a game against the Titans,” said Warner, a former Arena Leaguer who got a chance to play this year only because starter Trent Green wrecked his knee in the preseason.

When Green went down, it seemed like just another stroke of bad luck for the team with the worst record of the 1990s heading into this season. But Warner came out of nowhere, Faulk was unstoppable and the defense did not allow a 100-yard rusher.

Dick Vermeil, who was 5-11 and 4-12 in his first two seasons after a 14-year hiatus from the sidelines, was selected Coach of the Year for the juggernaut he put together. The Rams were 9-0 at home, including a 49-31 romp past Minnesota in the playoffs.

All of what they built was severely tested Sunday by the superb play of Sapp, linebacker Derrick Brooks and the rest of the Bucs defense. But, finally, like the city’s biggest hero, Mark McGwire, the Rams found the long ball just in time.