It was thrilling, it was draining -- and it was totally unpredictable. But that's what made the Rams' victory over the Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV so great. Get used to it, because if there's one thing we know about the NFL at the turn of the century, it's that from year to year we really don't know a thing. What could be more fun?

 

As good as it's ever been
January 30, 2000

It was a thing of beauty, this game between these two NFL upstarts. Put both the Titans and Rams into a Super Bowl for the first time, and they merely produce a matchup for the ages, a tingling affair decided by what, 6 inches of gleaming artificial turf?

So let's hope that the newly generated turmoil in the NFL continues, that the league keeps churning out new contenders every year just as it has the past two, that we are exposed to more warm-and-cuddly stories like Kurt Warner. If this is where pro football is headed, we should be celebrating.

For this 34th Super Bowl, concluded only when Titans receiver Kevin Dyson was smacked down by Rams linebacker Mike Jones a tantalizing arm's length from the end zone as time expired, puts to shame most of those games between members of the old NFL establishment, which produced dynasties and lopsided championship contests that sent us all home wondering why we wasted our time watching in the first place.

"This is what Super Bowls are made of," says Rams running back Marshall Faulk. "You know, I've seen some games where teams have gotten blown out and given up. But this is better than I ever thought it would be."

Maybe these newcomers have not been contenders long enough to know the old script very well. Maybe they did not understand this game, for the most part, has been anticlimactic, decided by the quick dominance of one participant. Instead, the Rams and Titans revealed a refreshing and dramatic way to play a Super Bowl, full of records and incredible rallies and gut-wrenching efforts and that one final play, instantly a permanent part of this game's celebrated lore.

For their 23-16 victory, the Rams got their first NFL title since 1951, when they were located in Los Angeles, and St. Louis finally got an NFL championship. We got as much as we could have hoped for from a contest of this magnitude.

And to think many fans might not have given this one a chance. With good reason, ABC television was concerned viewers would stay away because none of the old-line league powers was good enough to get this far. Those who decided it was not worth turning on surely are the losers.

They simply missed sports entertainment at its sizzling best that left us gasping but wanting more: A Super Bowl-record 414 passing yards by the magical, seemingly unflappable Warner; a 73-yard touchdown catch by Isaac Bruce that should have ended the Titans' hopes; a 16-yard completion by Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair in the final minute that came about only because he somehow shrugged off 560 pounds of Rams defensive linemen before unloading the pass; and enough twists and turns and momentum changes and emotional upheavals to satisfy us for a lifetime.

What's more, they missed a historical turn for the league. This game was a test case for the new dynamic of the NFL -- a dynamic that is changing the pro football playing field as we know it; a dynamic that will test the flexibility and long-term staying power of this sports behemoth.

Here was a matchup between two teams from small markets featuring no established national heroes. Two years after John Elway met Brett Favre, one year after Elway bounded into retirement with a second title in a row, we watched McNair against Warner, both with fascinating stories but neither yet part of our enduring sports fabric.

But this is what the evolution of this sport is all about. Fueled by free agency and the salary cap, there no longer are established dynasties, nor are longtime, dominant stars controlling the pace of events. Unpredictability is now the norm rather than a rarity. At season's beginning, anyone who thought this Super Bowl would be about the Rams and Titans would have been branded eccentric at best.

But you might as well start thinking of the craziest pairing possible for next year's Super Bowl; who's to say the Cardinals against the Bengals won't take place, not after two seasons' worth of mounting evidence that this overnight transformation of teams from mediocre to sensational is simply a logical result of today's NFL?

Yet amid the freshness that this dynamic produces -- honest now, how many players from each of these teams could you have named before January 1? -- it also introduces the unknown to the NFL dynamo.

For so long now, the league has been churning out immense dollars and mind-boggling ratings, increasing even more tellingly its hold over the American sports fan. So much of this success was built on the serenity of predictability; within reason you could depend on a few monster teams being the best for years at a time, and you certainly knew who the megastars were, players who provided the pivotal story lines for so many opening segments to all those televised games.

There was so much stability that the league could churn out a schedule for the next season, complete with marquee pairings for Sunday nights and Monday nights, and feel confident most, if not all, of those contests would unfold as anticipated once the season began. In November, you would find yourself thinking as you turned on your set for a Monday night game, "This is just the game I want to see." Bet you did not say this much this past December, especially when the 49ers and Falcons ended the Monday night schedule in what kindly can be described as a clunker of a contest.

But who would have anticipated that the 49ers, Jets, Broncos and Packers, all prime-time staples, would flop? ABC and the NFL didn't, which is why those teams were seen lots nationally while the Rams, Titans and Colts did not have one Monday night exposure. It was not until the second week of the playoffs that a national audience finally saw the eventual Super Bowl champions.

"When this season started, ABC was as excited about our Monday night schedule as we ever have been," says Howard Katz, president of ABC sports. "But a lot of teams that we were relying on didn't have the kind of season we thought they would have. So we wound up with matchups that were not as attractive as we thought. It would be ludicrous to say it didn't affect us."

ABC survived quite nicely this season. Even though its rating was its lowest ever, Monday Night Football still was the third-highest-rated network prime-time show from September to December, its best ranking ever.

But the network clearly is uneasy about sustaining ratings amid football's changing dynamics. So Katz and the league are talking about introducing a new element to the scheduling of December games on both Sunday and Monday nights. Why not have some flexibility that will allow obvious bad games to be replaced by more attractive ones over the season's final month?

Although ABC would benefit directly from this change, Fox and CBS also would profit. They would stand a better chance of having higher playoff ratings if the premier teams previously had received proper national fawning.

The league is examining ABC's proposal cautiously. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue estimates that it has a "50-50" chance of being adopted this winter because of team concerns over the effects it would have on planning by season-ticket holders and hotels, among others. But it will not go away, just as this new dynamic will not disappear.

"I don't see the constant changing of teams in the league as something that won't keep happening," says Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, chairman of the NFL's television committee.

"So we need to give flexible scheduling lots of thought. I mean, here we are 6-10 this season after winning two straight Super Bowls. That wasn't normally the way it worked in the '80s and most of the '90s. We want to consider everything we can to ensure we have our game seen by the biggest audience possible."

At the same time, the NFL also is uncertain about the identity of its future stars. And that raises the question of whether the league can remain an attractive national marketing product if it continues to be driven -- as it has the past two seasons -- by team stories, not individual icons.

After all, the class of '83, with Marino and Elway as its two most notable Phi Beta Kappas, is finally fading from the spotlight. We no longer have Barry Sanders, either, and Steve Young's future is iffy, Troy Aikman is struggling, Drew Bledsoe is stuck in quicksand and Deion Sanders might bolt to baseball. Favre remains, but he is mired in a two-year slump, and Terrell Davis, the most charismatic of the young runners, is recovering from a serious knee injury.

This Super Bowl might have begun to fill a few of those star holes. Warner, for one, can not possibly be a fluke, even if what he accomplished this season -- regular-season MVP, now Super Bowl MVP -- seems so surreal that it is almost unfathomable. A former store clerk Arena Football League-NFL Europe player who, if not for a preseason injury to Trent Green, would not have played this season -- and now he is the toast of the NFL, a producer of history in a Super Bowl no less.

No forum, regardless of how big or how new, fazes him. Not even going 0-for-12 in the red zone through the game's first 37 minutes, only to ignore this frustration and throw a 9-yard pass to Torry Holt in the third quarter for a 16-0 lead.

And when the Titans turned physical, wore down the Rams' defense with the thrusts of Eddie George and McNair, and rallied to tie it at 16, Warner connected with Bruce on the very next play for a 73-yard, game-winning score. Amazing.

"That is what he is made of," says offensive coordinator Mike Martz. "His ability to handle pressure makes him something special."

And what about McNair, whose unconventional quarterback methods merely produce victories? Just feast on that final drive: Trailing by seven points. Just under two minutes remaining. McNair, the inconsistent quarterback, completes five passes. McNair, the bull rusher, scrambles for 14 yards more.

McNair, who refused to let his team collapse, watches helplessly as his final attempt, a rub pattern to Dyson -- who is open across the middle -- winds up failing by those few frustrating inches because of Jones' superb open-field tackle. No consolation, but McNair wound up with 64 rushing yards, a Super Bowl record for a quarterback.

"It looked like a peewee game," Rams linebacker Todd Collins says of the Rams' encounters with McNair. "It looked like we were completely exhausted, and he was the big kid just running around. What a great athlete he is."

But the problem is, if franchises no longer can sustain excellence -- remember, three of the four clubs in this year's conference championship games were not even in last season's playoffs -- it makes it more difficult to develop heroes. Last January, we were writing about Randall Cunningham and Jamal Anderson. Now, Cunningham is not even a starter for the Vikings and Anderson was cut down by a bad knee.

What if Warner stumbles in 2000? What if McNair regresses or his back problems prove incurable? What if the Rams and Titans retreat into the pack, burying these stars in the process? Television, for example, wanted to make a hero out of Arizona's Jake Plummer, but he is not living up to his part of the deal.

One of the more telling moments during Super Bowl week about the changing NFL came when the Miller Brewing Co. was holding a press conference to announce its player of the year selection. Earlier, a news conference that featured Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and John Elway announcing the formation of a new online company attracted a packed house -- the beauty of star power.

The Miller folks were working the halls, trying to increase attendance for their event. Part of the problem was the lack of star power; the nominations all were first-timers -- Marshall Faulk, Warner, Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James and Stephen Davis.

Toss in a Favre or a Marino and it would have been a better sell. But Miller officials indicated no unhappiness with their NFL affiliation; the company will be back next year, riding the pro football wave.

"The game is so good that it sells itself," says Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' astute vice president of public relations and marketing, who has been selling smaller-market NFL teams (St. Louis, Cleveland and Baltimore) for 21 years.

"Football makes for great television and for great in-stadium entertainment, and that isn't going to change. That's how the Super Bowl has become the national holiday it is. Doesn't matter what teams are in it or what stars dominate it, it still attracts incredible audiences. And television will find heroes. If not players, then it will be the coach, just someone to fit into a 12-second intro.

"On an individual team basis, winning is the most important thing. You win and people go nuts; it doesn't matter who the heroes are. It makes it easier when you have heroes, but when I was with Cleveland, we would have sold out the stadium as long as we won, and not because we had Bernie (Kosar) or Brian Sipe at quarterback."

Byrne maintains that the new NFL dynamic ultimately could enhance the popularity of the sport.

"If you aren't winning, you have to sell hope to your ticket holders," he says. "Now you don't have dominant teams or dynasties. Instead, you have the Rams. You can say to your fans, look at the Rams. They went from 4-12 to the Super Bowl, and there is no reason we can't be the next Rams.

"And if they say, 'You don't have a quarterback,' you can say back, 'Well, neither did they before this year.' Let them tell you that they knew Kurt Warner would be a Super Bowl quarterback. There are a lot more teams in this league with hope than ever before."

The short-term results certainly indicate no glitches on the NFL screen. Despite the fadeout of the Cowboys, Packers, Broncos and 49ers and the collapse of so many elite stars, the league this year played to 90 percent stadium capacity, put up record attendance for the fifth season in a row, had steady television ratings and its viewership during the playoffs held strong.

And for the time being, the NFL has no intention of trying to change the system that has contributed to the changing dynamics. The combination of free agency and the salary cap has leveled the playing field and produced an abundance of .500 teams.

Yet, this past season also had scintillating highlights of historic proportions. It produced four 13-or-more victory teams, the most in league history. Fifty percent of the games were decided by eight or fewer points, and 26 percent by three or fewer. There were five 4,000-yard passers, 26 1,000-yard receivers and 177 100-yard receiving games, all NFL records. And billionaires keep bidding record millions to own franchises, all the while complaining this is a poor business investment. If so, it is not for the NFL. Unpredictability, at least for now, does not seem so bad for football.

"We aren't quite the same as college football, where if you put up tickets now for Ohio State-Michigan in year 2024, you sell it out immediately," says Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, "but remember that television pays out enormous sums to us for games without any idea what teams and what players will be any good five years from now.

"But the league is bigger than individual players or a dynasty. It is great, great entertainment. No matter how it changes, it still will be dominant."

After a game like this one, who can argue with Accorsi? It even helped to overcome a not-so-Super week in cold and messy Atlanta, which put a damper on the gala with its nasty weather. The Titans even conducted one news conference in an unheated tent where the temperature was pushing 32 degrees. Both teams had to juggle their practice schedules and change plans already pushed by the fact this championship did not feature the usual week off.

Now the Rams can celebrate this most unlikely of titles. Just a year ago, there was speculation coach Dick Vermeil would lose his job after a 4-12 embarrassment. Now, at age 63, he is the poster boy for overcoming coaching burnout. Nineteen years ago, his Eagles lost to the Raiders in Super Bowl 15. Two years later, he quit, emotionally drained. On Sunday, his emotions were tears of joy.

"When coach came here (three years ago), he told us if we believed in him, we would win," says defensive end Kevin Carter. "Look what he has done for an entire city and this franchise."

Remember, until this remarkable season, these Rams had the worst record during the 1990s of any NFL franchise.

The Rams also are poster boys. They feature the most modern offense in the league, a high-flying passing machine that set a Super Bowl record for passing yards (407) and for fewest rushing yards by a winning team (29). They are fast, entertaining and daring; Martz predicted they would be aggressive in this game despite its pressurized environment, and they were. Just as telling, they also avoided any turnovers, never giving Tennessee an opening.

And the Titans cooperated in the first half by dropping their safeties far off the line and allowing the Rams to catch slants underneath the coverage. St. Louis moved inside the 20 on its first five possessions; if the Rams had come away with more than three field goals, the game would not have been close at the end. Yet once Tennessee began bumping the receivers early in their routes, Warner's second-half numbers fell.

Now the Titans will spend the offseason pondering the what-ifs. What if they had been more aggressive defensively from the get-go? What if they had not checked out of so many running plays in the first half, fearful the Rams' eight-man fronts would stuff them? What if they had been just as physical the whole game as they were in the second half, when their big offensive line overpowered the smalish St. Louis front four and the Titans gained 129 rushing yards?

The Rams have no more questions, just satisfaction.

"You dream of winning this game and when you actually do, it's overwhelming," says Carter. "It's a feeling you will never forget."

And this is a game we will never forget.