The 1999 NFL season was a changing of the guard moment in a lot of ways. The great quarterbacks of the previous decade-plus—most notably John Elway, Steve Young, Dan Marino, and Troy Aikman, either retired before the season, showed marked signs of decline during the season, or retired afterwards. The great running back, Barry Sanders, surprisingly retired. With all this change, perhaps it was fitting that we not only had a new champion, but a team and quarterback that completely came from nowhere. The St. Louis Rams won their first Super Bowl title, and Kurt Warner completed a miracle rise from the Arena Football League to NFL MVP.
Warner led a high-octane offense that was dubbed “The Greatest Show on Turf” and his primary weapon was Marshall Faulk. A Hall of Fame talent and one of the most versatile running backs of all-time, Faulk ran for nearly 1,400 yards and racked up over 1,000 yards receiving. Isaac Bruce was another 1,000-yard receiver. In the trenches, the Rams had an All-Pro offensive tackle in Orlando Pace, and another All-Pro on the defensive side with Kevin Carter.
The Rams surprised the league by racing to a 6-0 start. They finished 13-3 and secured the top seed in the NFC playoffs with relative ease.
Over in the AFC, the muscle was in the Central Division. The Jacksonville Jaguars had been a top contender for four years now under Tom Coughlin and this ’99 edition was Coughlin’s best. The stingiest defense in the league was led by linebacker Kevin Hardy. A potent offense had Mark Brunell enjoying a Pro Bowl year throwing to Jimmy Smith and protected by tackle Tony Boselli.
The Jaguars rang up a league-best 14-2 record. The only losses were to a division rival, the Tennessee Titans. Even with quarterback Steve McNair missing five games, the Titans still had the seventh-best offense in the NFL. Eddie George ran for over 1,300 yards and Frank Wycheck was a Pro Bowl tight end. Bruce Matthews was one of the best guards in the league, leading an offense that could get physical. The defense was led by end Jevon Kearse.
Tennessee finished 13-3. That alone was enough reason to give them respect going into the playoffs, but the sweep of Jacksonville, along with a 24-21 win over the Rams in October, showed what the Titans could do against the league’s best.
As the quarterbacks of a previous generation were fading away, a QB that would define the generation to come was emerging. Peyton Manning was in his second season with the Colts and he made the Pro Bowl. The third-most productive scoring offense in the NFL had great players at running back with Edgerrin James and wide receiver with Marvin Harrison. Indianapolis rang up a 13-3 record of their own, won the AFC East and earned the #2 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Putting together that kind of record was no easy feat for Indy, because the AFC East was a block of a division. All five teams finished at least .500. The Buffalo Bills didn’t have stars, but they had the second-best defense in the league, and a veteran quarterback in Doug Flutie. Buffalo went 11-5. And Miami, with Marino playing his final season, got to a 9-7 record and earned the sixth and final playoff berth. The Dolphins had playmakers on defense, with linebacker Zach Thomas and cornerback Sam Madison.
The playoff field was rounded out by the Seattle Seahawks winning a pedestrian AFC West that declined drastically after Elway retired, and the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos briefly faded from relevance. Mike Holmgren had left Green Bay to become both GM and coach in Seattle. With Ricky Watters rushing for over 1,200 yards, Holmgren went 9-7, with the most notable win being a Monday Night return to Green Bay, where the Seahawks beat up the Packers 27-7.
Challengers to St. Louis in the NFC started in the Central Division. Tony Dungy’s rebuilding project in Tampa Bay was bearing fruit. The Bucs had the Defensive Player of the Year in tackle Warren Sapp, along with great players in linebacker Derrick Brooks and safety John Lynch. An outstanding defense carried a woeful offense into contention.
Minnesota, who had come within a hair of the Super Bowl a year earlier, slipped a little bit, because of a mediocre defense. But the Vikings could still score points. They changed veteran quarterbacks, going from Randall Cunningham to Jeff George. But whomever was behind center was still throwing the football to the Hall of Fame combo of Cris Carter and Randy Moss. And Robert Smith was a 1,400-yard rusher. The Vikings were still a contender.
Green Bay, one of the league’s best teams with Brett Favre at quarterback, through much of the decade, slipped in their first year without Holmgren. But the Packers still lingered on the playoff bubble through the season. So did Detroit, with big-play receivers Germane Crowell and Johnnie Morton helping to at least partially compensate for the loss of Sanders.
The league’s biggest games in December involved the contenders from the NFC Central. Tampa Bay made its big statement by sweeping three games from Minnesota, Detroit, and Green Bay down the stretch. The Bucs finished 11-5, won the division and took the 2-seed. The Lions slipped in as the 6-seed with an 8-8 record. And in a big December Monday Night game, Minnesota beat Green Bay 24-20. That was why the Vikings finished 10-6 and got a home game in the wild-card round, while the Packers settled for 8-8 and staying home.
In the NFC East, another top team was fading to .500. In this case it was the Dallas Cowboys. Aikman was nearing the end of the line. Michael Irvin suffered a bad spinal injury in October and was forced to retire. Of the fabled “Big Three” that had carried this franchise to three Super Bowl titles, only Emmitt Smith was still a Pro Bowl player. The Cowboys struggled to an 8-8 record. But in this year with a lot of mediocrity, and thanks to a 27-13 win over the Packers on November 14, Dallas’ .500 record got them in the playoffs.
The Washington Redskins had not made the playoffs since Joe Gibbs retired following the 1992 season. Behind an explosive offense, this year ended the drought. Stephen Davis ran for over 1,400 yards. Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell each exceeded the 1,100-yard mark in receiving. Brad Johnson was the quarterback for an offense that trailed only St. Louis for points scored. The Redskins went 10-6 and won the NFC East.
With a pair of .500 teams in the playoffs, the NFC wild-card round was free of drama. Washington knocked off Detroit 27-13, while Minnesota handled Dallas 27-10. In the AFC, the coach/QB combo of Jimmy Johnson and Dan Marino, each making their last stand, came up with a big win—they went on the road to Seattle and won 20-17.
But the story of this wild-card weekend—or, for that matter, most any wild-card weekend, was what happened in Tennessee.
The drama of the Titans-Bills game began even before kickoff. While Flutie had been the quarterback all season, he’d had to beat out the more touted favorite, Rob Johnson, for the job. In Week 16, a game that was meaningless to Buffalo, Johnson started and played well. Based on that, owner Ralph Wilson insisted that Johnson start this playoff game. Johnson didn’t play well in Tennessee, but that tough Bills’ defense kept them in it and a field goal in the closing seconds put Buffalo on top, 16-15.
There was time for the kickoff and, at best, maybe one play. What followed would become known as “The Music City Miracle.” Wycheck scooped up the squib kick. He executed a cross-field lateral pass to Kevin Dyson. Buffalo had taken the bait and gone after Wycheck. Dyson raced into the end zone. Though the Bills argued furiously that it was a forward lateral, and therefore illegal, the play stood. Tennessee won 22-16.
Tennessee’s magic carried them into Indianapolis, where they began what would be a Colts trend in the Manning era—taking a disappointing loss in the playoffs. The Titans won 19-16. Meanwhile, Jacksonville looked every bit like a team ready to win a Super Bowl, demolishing Miami 62-7 and sending Johnson and Marino into retirement.
The best game of the weekend was in Tampa Bay. The Redskins took a 13-0 lead over the Buccaneers on the road. It was the situation Tampa didn’t want to be in—a defense-first team having to rally in the second half. But they did, pulling out a 14-13 victory.
And The Greatest Show on Turf? The Rams blew out the scoreboard lights, with a 49-37 win over the Vikings.
It’s an age-old question in sports—when a team has beaten a comparable opponent twice already, does it mean they have that team’s number, or does it mean that getting a three-game sweep will be nearly impossible? In the case of Titans v. Jaguars 1999, the answer was the former. Tennessee jumped out on Jacksonville for a big early lead and never looked back in a 33-14 rout.
Another age-old question in sports is this—when a team with an explosive offense finally meets a defense that can slow them down and “ugly the game up” a bit, will that team play through the ugliness or stumble? In the case of Rams v. Buccaneers 1999, The Greatest Show on Turf passed the test. Tampa Bay’s defense did what they had to do and played a terrific football game. But the Ram defense was equal to the task. Warner made just enough plays to win. In an ugly game, St. Louis survived, 11-6.
For much of the Super Bowl, the game was similarly ugly. And St. Louis again showed they could play through it, chipping away to build a 16-0 lead. Then Tennessee came roaring back, tying the game 16-16 in the fourth quarter. Once again, the Rams responded. Warner hit Bruce with a 73-yard touchdown strike.
The Titans drove back down the field. They reached the 10-yard line with time for one more play. McNair threw to Dyson underneath. The wide receiver had to break one tackle to get in the end zone. But linebacker Mike Jones got a hold of Dyson and didn’t let him wriggle free. The wide receiver desperately reached for the goal line but came up a yard short.
A year of change in the NFL had ended with one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history. The St. Louis Rams were champions.