The St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans were not likely candiates to give America a great championship battle. They weren’t even good candidates to make the playoffs, much less the Super Bowl when the 1999 NFL season began. But in an unpredictable year, a great battle is exactly what America got, as the Rams-Titans Super Bowl came down to but a single yard.
Both franchises were recent relocations. The Rams came to St. Louis prior to 1995 and hadn’t won more than six games in a season in their new home. The Titans departure from Houston, where they were called the Oilers, prior to 1997 was marginally more successful, but there were still no playoff appearances.
St. Louis captured everyone’s attention with a 6-0 start, particularly its journeyman quarterback Kurt Warner, who transformed himself into the league MVP. The offense was “The Greatest Show On Turf”, with Marshall Faulk in the backfield as one of the great combination running/receiving threats the league has ever seen, along with Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt outside. Orlando Pace was a first-team All-Pro at left tackle and Kevin Carter was the team’s best defensive player with seventeen sacks.
The Rams finished the season 13-3 and were the top seed in the NFC. They lit up the Minnesota Vikings in the first playoff game, 49-37. Then St. Louis showed they could win the hard way, in a grueling 11-6 NFC Championship win over the Tony Dungy-coached Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Tennessee was built around the run, as Eddie George rolled up 1300 yards, and quarterback Steve McNair could both run or pass. Jevon Kearse was a havoc-wreaker at defensive end, with 14.5 sacks. The Titans went 13-3, and even though that put them a game back of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the old AFC Central (which included the four teams in the current AFC North), Tennessee had handed the Jags both of their losses.
The Titans then won one of the most stunning playoff finishes of all time. “The Music City Miracle” saw them trailing the Buffalo Bills 16-15 in the closing seconds. Tight end Frank Wychek fielded the squib kickoff at the 25, threw an across-the-field lateral to Kevin Dyson, who ran it in for the game-winning touchdown.
Thus inspired, Tennessee then knocked out Indianapolis and Peyton Manning, and finished the AFC run with a third straight win over Jacksonville.
St. Louis was a seven-point favorite at the Super Bowl in Atlanta. The game was ugly early on, with only three Rams’ field goals in the first half, but when the Rams scored the first touchdown of the second half, it looked like it might be getting out of hand.
Tennessee chipped their way back to tie it 16-16 with five minutes to play. On the ensuing possession Warner hit Bruce on a 73-yard scoring strike down the sidelines to give the Rams a 23-16 lead.
Then began the drive. Tennessee started on its own 12, got a key facemask penalty and a clutch catch by Dyson and slowly but surely they were on the St. Louis 10-yard line with time for one more play.
The throw went to Dyson over the middle. He caught it inside the 5, and had one man to beat. Mike Jones, a linebacker of no particular note, put the tackle on. Dyson turned his body and reached to the end zone with the football. He came up a yard short. Jones had made a history-changing tackle. The Rams-Titans Super Bowl had ended on the one-yard line.
St. Louis had their only Super Bowl win, regardless of location. Tennessee still awaits their first title. Three feet separates those two destinies.
The 1999 Tennessee Titans were in just their third year in the state after moving from Houston and 1999 would be their first year going under the name “Titans”, having decided that “Tennessee Oilers” didn’t exactly fit. Whatever city they played in, and whatever they were called, the team was settled in comfortable mediocrity, having gone 8-8 three straight seasons and 7-9 in 1995, and having never made it, much less won, a Super Bowl.
Jeff Fisher was coaching the team and had the offense built around running back Eddie George, who ran behind an offensive line that included All-Pro left guard Bruce Matthews, one of the best to ever play his position. Another Pro Bowler was tight end Frank Wycheck, although he would later make his biggest contribution to the Super Bowl run by methods not usually ascribed to his position.
The team ranked 7th in the NFL in points scored and a defense built around a strong four-man pass rush did enough to get by. Rookie end Jevon Kearse rang up 14.5 sacks, and Henry Ford provided solid pressure on the other end.
The Titans were in the old AFC Central. Prior to the realignment of 2002 this division also consisted of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Jacksonville and Baltimore. The Titans opened with wins over the lowly Bengals and Browns and then went to Jacksonville.
Coached by Tom Coughlin and led by Mark Brunnell, the Jaguars were the division favorite and seen as a serious Super Bowl threat. Tennessee pulled a 20-19 upset, rallying from a 17-7 deficit after three quarters. Neil O’Donnell, formerly the starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers on their Super Bowl team of 1995, was the Titan insurance policy for starter Steve McNair, and O’Donnell threw for 216 yards, while the defense picked Brunnell three times.
Tennessee suffered a letdown with a two-point loss to San Francisco—at the time this loss looked okay, as the 49ers had been in the playoffs every year since 1991, but ’99 was the beginning of the end for the Steve Young era by the Bay. The Titans came back and won a tough home game over Baltimore 14-11. They trailed 9-7 in the third quarter when O’Donnell found Yancy Thigpen—another Pittsburgh castoff—for the go-head score in the fourth quarter.
October 31 marked a visit to St. Louis, with two non-traditional powers having only one loss. The Rams had electrified the league early behind previously unknown Kurt Warner, who’d taken over the offense and turned it into a prolific passing machine, with versatile running back Marshall Faulk and explosive receivers Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt.
The Titans were ready, as McNair threw two early touchdown passes and helped build a 21-0 lead. Warner came storming back and threw three scoring strikes of his own in the second half, but buried in between them was an Al Del Greco field goal for Tennessee that ensured the Titans got out of town with a 24-21 win.
Prosperity again proved difficult to handle, with a loss at Miami 17-0. The Dolphins were in their final year under Jimmy Johnson’s coaching and Dan Marino at quarterback, although Brock Huard got the nod for the Dolphins in this game. Huard picked apart the Titan secondary, at 15/25 for 210 yards and zero mistakes, while McNair tossed three into enemy hands. The loss was all the more crucial, because Jacksonville hadn’t lost since their September 26 game with Tennessee.
After rolling through Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Cleveland (the Steelers were going through a three-year period, 1998-2000, of mediocrity), the Titans got set for a trip to Baltimore. The Ravens were on their way to an 8-8 season, but were becoming competitive and this was a rivalry that would define the entire NFL just one year later. Tennessee wasn’t ready.
While they trailed only 17-14 at half and 24-14 after three quarters, the Ravens pulled away with 17 fourth-quarter points. Tennessee’s defense was picked apart by Tony Banks, who threw for 332 yards and running back Priest Holmes got 100 receiving yards on just nine catches.
The loss at Baltimore relegated Tennessee to wild-card status, even though they played well the rest of the way. A Thursday night win over Oakland was keyed by George’s 199 yards on the ground and on the day after Christmas, Tennessee again beat Jacksonville, and this time it wasn’t close. The Titans jumped out to a 17-0 lead behind two TD passes from McNair, and the defense picked Brunnell three times yet again. The final was the same 41-14 score they’d lost to Baltimore by.
Because of the Titans’ other losses, it only delayed Jacksonville’s clinching of the AFC Central and #1 seed by a week, but Tennessee was a dazzling 13-3 and headed into the playoffs as the #4 seed in the AFC.
Prior to the 2002 realignment the top wild-card got a home playoff game, as there were only three division winners, so Tennessee’s fans filled up the stadium on January 8 to watch a Saturday afternoon game with Buffalo, one the Titans were expected to win.
After a scoreless first quarter, the game seemed to go according to script in the second quarter. Kearse sacked Buffalo quarterback Rob Johnson for a safety, McNair snuck a TD in and Del Greco hit a field goal. It was 12-0, but that was the last thing about this day that would go according to script.
Buffalo took a 13-12 on two touchdown runs by Antwoain Smith who rushed for 79 yards on the day. George rushed for 106 and helped overcome an incompetent game by McNair and Tennessee got a fourth-quarter field goal from Del Greco to make it 15-13. Buffalo answered with a kick of its own from Steve Christie with just seconds on the clock. It was 16-15 and the upset was all but sealed.
When the squib kickoff game, Wycheck was the one who fielded it at his own 25. He turned and threw the ball back across the field to Dyson. The Buffalo special teams were caught completely off guard and Dyson raced into the end zone. Buffalo was sure Wycheck had thrown it forward and instant replay was called in.
The delay seemed to take forever, as it seemed you could look at the play from any angle and see what you wanted. What the officials saw was a legal lateral and a stunning touchdown. The Music City Miracle is still an integral part of NFL lore, and the Titans were moving to the divisional playoffs.
A face familiar to Tennessee football stood in the way the following Sunday. Peyton Manning, who played college ball for the Volunteers, was making his first playoff appearance as a pro, and there were questions about his ability to win the big one—after all, he’d never beaten Florida and then his alma mater rolled to a national title behind a quarterback with considerably less skill, but perhaps more clutch mojo. It was a reputation that would chase Manning until he got his ring in 2006 and not until the Colts completely came apart at the seams after his neck injury cost him the 2011 season, did that reputation get its final deserved burial.
Peyton’s postseason miseries started on this day. George put the Titans up 13-9 in the third quarter with a 68-yard scoring run and piled up 162 yards on the day, keying a 19-16 road win.
Next up was the AFC Championship Game and the Titans had to complete the sweep of Jacksonville, who’d gotten the first-round bye and then annihilated Miami to send Johnson and Marino into retirement. Jacksonville drew first blood on a touchdown pass by Brunnell to his tight end Kyle Brady. McNair found Thigpen to answer. In the second quarter, the Jags found the end zone again and the Titans could only answer with a Del Greco field goal. It was 14-10 at half.
Tennessee drove it for a touchdown to take the lead and then sacked Brunnell for a safety to take a 19-14 lead. They had the momentum, but what happened next clearly swung the game for good. Derrick Mason took the free kick after the safety on his own 20 and ended up in the end zone.
It was now 26-14 and the Titans were rolling. They would intercept Brunnell twice in this game—eight in the three-game swing against their rival and a man who was then one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks. The final was 33-14. Tennessee was the only team in the NFL to beat Jacksonville all year, but they left no doubt about who owned this matchup.
1999 was a rare year where the NFL decided to play the Super Bowl the week right after the conference championship games, denying the fans, coaches and players of both sides a few days to just celebrate and let it out of their system, before refocusing. At least the foe was familiar—St. Louis had gotten the #1 seed in the NFC, blown out Minnesota and then survived a tough fight against Tampa Bay to get Warner and veteran coach Dick Vermeil to the game’s biggest stage.
Tennessee didn’t come quite as strong as they had in the October 31 meeting. St. Louis was the only team to score in the first half, getting three field goals from Jeff Wilkins for a 9-0 lead. If you were a concerned Titans fan you looked at the last four quarters against the Rams and noted you only had three points. If you were a concerned Rams fan you looked at this game in light of the NFC Championship battle and noted that your high-powered offense had found the end zone one time in six quarters of football at the highest level. Someone had to find a way to move the ball.
At first that was the Rams, as Warner found Holt on a nine-yard scoring play to make it 16-0. On the verge of putting a lot of us to sleep, the Titans decided to awaken. By early in the fourth quarter, George had rushed in for a pair of short touchdowns and cut the lead to 16-13 (there was a missed two-point conversion on the first touchdown, as Fisher tried to tie the game in two possessions). Then a Del Greco field goal tied the game. Could the Super Bowl trophy be on its way to Nashville? Warner wasn’t ready to yield that quick. He rifled a 73-yard strike to Isaac Bruce down the sideline and the Rams had the lead with less than two minutes to play.
Tennessee got the ball on its own 10 after a penalty on the kickoff return. 1:54 was on the clock. McNair pushed the team down the field. With time for one more play they were now on the Rams ten-yard line. The play was a slant to Dyson who needed only make one man miss to reach the end zone. The man was linebacker Mike Jones. It was a play the receiver wins more often than not, but not this time. Jones wrapped. Dyson reached. The ball landed at the one-yard line. Play-by-play man Al Michaels made immediate reference to the movie The Longest Yard now having a sequel.
Unfortunately for the Titans, this was as close as they’ve gotten to winning a Super Bowl. In 2000, they had the best team in football and were #1 in the AFC. Like Jacksonville the year before they had to play a hot wild-card from their own division in Baltimore. The Ravens won the game and went on to win the Super Bowl. Though the Titans-Ravens game took place in the second round, I believe it was the de facto Super Bowl. Tennessee was the only team who even stayed on the field with the ’00 Baltimore team.
In 2002, Tennessee lost the AFC title game in Oakland. In 2008 they had a #1 seed and lost at home…to Baltimore. The 1999 Tennessee Titans remain the only team in franchise history—both in their current locale and dating back to the time in Houston—to reach the Super Bowl.