- The Washington Times - Monday, January 31, 2000

ATLANTA

Forget the souvenir seat cushions. The NFL should have issued everybody at the Super Bowl a cervical collar yesterday. You could have gotten whiplash watching Kurt Warner wing the ball downfield, over and over again. In the first half alone he threw it 35 times or 28 more than Bob Griese did in all of Super Bowl VIII. Warner would have thrown it even more if the Tennessee Titans had let him, but on a couple of occasions they managed to get in the way.

Dick Vermeil gets cryogenically frozen for 14 years, the St. Louis Rams thaw him out in 1997, and he returns to this? Footketball? I guess that's a measure of the man's greatness as a coach. He got to Super Bowl XV with a prototypical run-first, pass-second team the Wilbert Montgomery/Ron Jaworski Eagles and he got to the Super Bowl 19 years later with an offense that's straight out of "Star Wars." The Rams pass to set up the run, they pass to set up the pass and they pass to set up the pass they're going to throw after they throw this pass.

It's enough to make your head spin around like Linda Blair's in "The Exorcist." And it was ultimately too much for Tennessee yesterday, game though Jevon Kearse and Co. were. Just when the Titans thought they had the Rams on the run, rallying from a 16-0 deficit to tie the score with 2:12 left, Warner hit them one last laser blast a 73-yard touchdown strike to Isaac Bruce and St. Louis walked off with a 23-16 victory.

These Rams are relentless. If Bruce isn't cutting the heart out of your secondary, then rookie Torry Holt, a Jerry Rice play-alike, is. And they have one weapon no one else in the league does: Marshall Faulk, a running back who's as dangerous as a receiver as he is as a runner. When you line Faulk up wide, offensive coordinator Mike Martz said all week, you're lining up a guy with the skills of a Pro Bowl wideout.

The St. Louis receiving corps stretches a defense the way John Madden stretches a waistband. Almost any time Warner had a few seconds to scan the field, it was like shooting fish in an Arena League barrel. The Titans have terrific coverage people, too (though they were sorely shorthanded in the second half after adding Blaine Bishop, their Pro Bowl strong safety, to an injury list that already included free safety Marcus Robertson). Still, I'm not sure Tennessee could have beaten the Rams even if it had had Bishop and Robertson for 60 minutes. The Titans rush just didn't get to Warner often enough, and when he had somebody open he rarely missed him.

So the story of Warner's amazing season now has an ending, and it's a little different from "Damn Yankees." In the latter, the Kid Who Came Out of Nowhere Joe Hardy lost the big game. In the Warner version, he not only fires the winning TD pass, he goes to Disney World as the Super Bowl MVP.

It's always dicey to make these predictions especially in the here-today, gone-tomorrow world of free agency but it looks like these two teams might be back in the Super Bowl soon. Who knows, they may even meet again, like the Steelers and Cowboys did in the '70s. Their stars are still young; it's just a matter of hanging on to them (which is sometimes easier said than done these days).

We should be so lucky to have another Ultimate Game like this one. Admittedly, the first 40 minutes were a little heavy on the field goal attempts, but the last 20 were as good as it gets in pro football. Bruce called it "one of the best games I have ever played in." To which Vermeil added: "I think we showed America what the Super Bowl is about today."

Warner couldn't help noticing the similarity between the two Rams-Titans games this year. "The first time we played [a 24-21 Tennessee win], we felt we ran out of time," he said. "This time, they probably felt they ran out of time… . I was just hoping we could hold on. They made some great drives at the end. We were just able to make that one play."

Steve McNair undoubtedly will still have his detractors. As Eddie George said, "We weren't making plays in the passing game [in the first 2 and 1/2 quarters] for us to be effective." But, seriously now, how many QBs could have brought their team back from 16 points down like McNair did? And after St. Louis hit Tennessee with the Bruce haymaker, he calmly took the Titans down the field again, only to have his last completion, on the last play, come up a yard short.

It's interesting that Terry Bradshaw was his idol growing up, because that's the quarterback he most reminds me of at this stage of his career. When Bradshaw went to his first Super Bowl in '74, he was just along for the ride. Everything revolved around Pittsburgh's "Steel Curtain" defense. But when he returned the next year, he was one of the reasons for the Steelers being there. I wouldn't be surprised if McNair's career took a similar course.

As for Warner, well, Vermeil probably said it best: "It's not a fairy tale. It's real life. He's a book, he's a movie, this guy." If Warner can rack up 414 yards passing in his first Super Bowl, what's he going to do down the road, when he really figures this game out? It's scary to even think about.

And now that Vermeil has won a title at the age of 63, after a lengthy sabbatical, teams will probably start scouting retirement homes for head coaches. Bud Grant, who took part in yesterday's coin toss, might be next. Heck, he's only 73. Just a pup. And I fully expect somebody to make Bill Parcells an offer in 14 years, when he's going stir-crazy like Vermeil was. Sid Gillman, Bill Walsh, Joe Gibbs hey, I wouldn't rule anyone out. Too bad Weeb Ewbank's gone. There might be a place for him in today's coach-starved NFL.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to take my cervical collar off. That finish was pretty wild, and it's getting a little hot under there.

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