'It gives everyone hope'
NFL reality: Almost any team can make the Super Bowl
Posted: Tuesday January 25, 2000 12:06 AM
By George, they've got it: Eddie George leads the Titans to their first Super Bowl in the franchise's 39-year history. AP
ATLANTA (AP) -- Not since 1982, when Cincinnati and San Francisco both went from 6-10 the previous year to the Super Bowl, has there been anything like it.
The St. Louis Rams and the Tennessee Titans, who were a combined 12-20 last season, are competing for pro football's biggest prize. The Rams are transplanted from Los Angeles. The Titans are the former Houston Oilers, who have spent four seasons in four different stadiums in three cities.
"It gives everyone hope regardless of where you are the previous year," said Atlanta coach Dan Reeves, who took the Falcons from 7-9 in 1997 to 14-2 and the NFC title last season. "You can be in last place one year and in the Super Bowl the next. I don't know that you could do that in the past."
Before free agency and the salary cap, the better organizations drafted well, built good teams and stayed good.
Between the 1981 and 1995 seasons, only six teams, all but one from the NFC, won Super Bowls -- San Francisco did it five times, Washington four, Dallas three, the New York Giants twice, and Chicago and the Los Angeles Raiders once. And when those five NFC teams weren't winning, they were making it deep into the playoffs and losing to one of the others.
The AFC, except for the Raiders, was losing Super Bowls, but it had repeat champions, too -- Denver in three of the four seasons between 1986 and 1989, then Buffalo for four straight seasons starting in 1990.
Free agency and the salary cap, however, have brought everyone to the middle -- nine of the 31 teams finished 8-8 this season. Reeves' Falcons went from 7-9 to the Super Bowl and back to 5-11 this season, finishing there because of injuries and free agent defections.
But the Titans and the Rams aren't the flukes some people think they are.
Tennessee has had talent since Jeff Fisher took over as coach in November of 1994 when the team was still in Houston and known as the Oilers.
By 1996, they had announced their intention to move and were drawing less than 20,000 to the Astrodome. They finished 2-6 at home and 6-2 on the road, the first of three straight .500 seasons.
The next year, as the Tennessee Oilers, they played in Memphis before less than 30,000 fans, many of them rooting for the opposition. Again they went 8-8 as they did last season, when they played in Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville.
But when they opened Adelphia Coliseum this year and were re-christened the Titans, the fans started showing up and rooting fervently. That energized everyone, from veterans like offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, a 12-time Pro Bowler at age 38 to rookie Jevon Kearse, who had 14.5 sacks, an NFL rookie record.
The rest of the team jelled around them, from quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George, two renowned college players, to Frank Wycheck, a journeyman who found a home at tight end in Nashville and youngsters like cornerback Samari Rolle.
"We grew and learned from the years of traveling," said McNair, whose 91 yards rushing were one of the keys to the 33-14 victory over Jacksonville in the AFC championship game Sunday.
Added Gary Walker, who wandered through the wilderness with the Oilers before signing this year with Jacksonville:
"To go through what they've gone through -- to finally get a home -- they just deserve a lot of credit."
The Rams were 4-12 last year.
But they got a surprise season from quarterback Kurt Warner, who had played in the Arena League and NFL Europe and was left exposed in the expansion draft for the Cleveland Browns last spring. Only when Trent Green, the big off-season free-agent acquisition got hurt, did Warner get a shot, and even then the Rams went looking for a veteran.
They never needed one. Warner threw 41 touchdown passes, the only quarterback other than Dan Marino ever to surpass 40, and was voted the league's most valuable player. Running back Marshall Faulk, obtained for just second- and fifth-round draft picks from Indianapolis, was offensive player of the year, becoming just the second player ever to run for more than 1,000 yards and catch more than 1,000 yards in passes.
They were the difference.
But the foundation was there.
Isaac Bruce, who missed most of 1997 and 1998 with nagging injuries, returned to his earlier form and was one of the NFL's best receivers and free-agent Adam Timmerman, who played on two Super Bowl teams with Green Bay, was added as a free agent.
Then there were all the high first-round picks the Rams made when they were bad -- defensive ends Kevin Carter and Grant Wistrom and offensive tackle Orlando Pace. All demonstrated this year why they were prized.
A Super Bowl berth.
"It's no fluke," Reeves said. "These teams are good and they deserve to be here. Maybe next year there will be someone else. That's probably better than the same teams all the time."
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