The superlatives flowed the morning after the most exciting finish in Super Bowl history.
“It just was a hell of a football game,” Paul Tagliabue said.
“A great game,” St. Louis Rams hero Kurt Warner agreed. “And then to win on a play like that, with an extraordinary play by Isaac [Bruce].”
It was so great that Rams coach Dick Vermeil didn’t have much of a voice left yesterday. Yup, even he left it all on the field. Let’s face it, St. Louis’ 23-16 win over the Tennessee Titans was one for the ages. How many Super Bowls have been decided by a 73-yard touchdown pass in the final two minutes? (Answer: None.) And how many have ended on the 1-yard line, with the losing team about an arm’s length from the tying score? (Answer: See previous answer.)
Was it the best Super Bowl ever? You could definitely make that argument. It all depends, I guess, on which you think is closer, one yard (the distance separating Tennessee’s Kevin Dyson from the goal line Sunday night) or one point (the margin by which the New York Giants beat the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV). Here’s the way I look at it: The Giants-Bills Super Bowl was a better game from start to finish, but the Rams-Titans Super Bowl had the most riveting second half. And who remembers the first halves of Super Bowls, anyway?
So my all-time Super Bowl rankings now look like this:
1. Super Bowl XXXIV.
2. Super Bowl XXV (Giants 20, Bills 19, with Scott Norwood missing a 47-yard field goal try at the buzzer).
3. Super Bowl XXXII (Broncos 31, Packers 24, with Green Bay stalling out at the Denver 31 in the last minute).
4. Super Bowl XXIII (49ers 20, Bengals 16, with Joe Montana directing the best game-ending drive in Super Bowl annals).
5. Super Bowl XVII (Redskins 27, Dolphins 17, with John Riggins shrugging off Don McNeal and going 43 yards for the go-ahead score on fourth-and-1).
(I’m sure there are some differing opinions out there, but, hey, you’ve got your favorites, I’ve got mine.)
Vermeil, who last made it to the Super Bowl in the 1980 season with the Eagles, remarked that “it’s become so much bigger in the last 19 years. It’s become an extravaganza within an extravaganza.” But it has also been, from the very beginning, an extravaganza that too often didn’t live up to its hype. Most Super Bowls have been dreary affairs, either blowouts or comedies of errors or just plain dull. For every Super Bowl XIII (Steelers 35, Cowboys 31), there have been five Super Bowl VIIIs (Dolphins 24, Vikings 7).
But that might be changing. Why? Because of the leveling effect of free agency. Did you notice that two of my top three Super Bowls were played in the last three years? That’s no accident, in my opinion. I honestly believe that parity loathsome though it may be is going to “save” the Super Bowl by giving us closer, more exciting games. And while those nine 8-8 teams the NFL had this season are a bit much, I’ll gladly put up with ‘em if the net result is Super Bowls like the one Sunday night.
What free agency is doing is preventing any team from getting too good. And there’s nothing that kills a Super Bowl more than a team that’s too good. The Bears were too good for the Patriots in ‘85. The 49ers were too good for the Broncos in ‘89. The Cowboys were too good for the Bills in ‘92. And the Cowboys probably would have been too good for the Steelers in ‘95 had free agency not come along. But the loss of Ken Norton, Mark Stepnoski, Russell Maryland, Alvin Harper and others helped bring Dallas back to the pack, and that made Super Bowl XXX (Cowboys 27, Steelers 17) a lot more entertaining than it might have been.
Indeed, in the five years since free agency took hold, there has only been one lousy Super Bowl (Broncos 34, Falcons 19.) All the others have been very watchable. When has the NFL ever had a stretch like that? And I’m convinced it’s going to continue. St. Louis and Tennessee are very talented teams, but you just know they’re going to take some free agent hits. Vermeil talked about it some yesterday. It’s inevitable. Will the Rams be able to keep Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Orlando Pace? Probably not. One or more of them will end up leaving when his contract expires.
It won’t be great for the Rams, but it will be great for the Super Bowl. “Man,” Warner said yesterday. “How many times does the guy break the tackle in [Dyson’s] situation and score to win the game?” (Or in this case, tie it.)
“When he caught the ball,” Vermeil said, “right away my thoughts went to overtime. Because I didn’t know if [outside linebacker Mike Jones] was going to tackle him. I was too far away to be sure.”
That’s how close Super Bowl XXXIV was. One more step and Dyson would have been in. Just think: If he had borrowed Vinny Testaverde’s helmet and Phil Luckett’s crew had been officiating we might have had our first overtime Super Bowl.