Before the New England Patriots were the class of the NFL, there were the St. Louis Rams.
Led by Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner and the “Greatest Show on Turf,” St. Louis went 37-11 from 1999 to 2001. They appeared in two Super Bowls in three years. They appeared to be a budding dynasty.
The Patriots were a team rebuilding at the time. Pete Carroll led New England to two playoff appearances in three seasons, but after an underwhelming 8-8 year in 1999, owner Robert Kraft fired him and brought on Bill Belichick.
Belichick’s Patriots went 5-11 in 2000, and things didn’t look much better at the start of the next season. Quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein died of heart attack during training camp. Veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe took a hit in Week 2 that sheared a blood vessel and caused his chest cavity to fill with blood, nearly killing him during the ambulance ride to the hospital.
Tom Brady, in his second year out of Michigan, took over. He’d only thrown three career passes, completing one of them. But Brady acclimated quickly, leading the Patriots to wins in three of their next four games and a six-game winning streak to end the season. By the time Bledsoe rejoined the team, Belichick had named Brady the starter.
Meanwhile St. Louis rolled to a 14-2 record with the league’s top offense, scoring 31.4 points per game. The Rams’ defense, considered a weak spot, was third in the league in yards allowed and seventh in points allowed. When they met the Patriots in the Super Bowl, St. Louis was favored by 14 points.
But New England ran out to a lead at halftime. Ty Law intercepted Warner and scored on a 47-yard return. Warner hit Ricky Proehl over the middle late in the second quarter on what looked like a promising drive, but Proehl fumbled and the Patriots recovered. Brady led New England on a five-play, 40-yard drive and threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to David Patten to go up 14-3.
Adam Vinatieri added a field goal to make it 17-3 in the third quarter.
But Warner led the Rams to a pair a fourth-quarter touchdowns, including a 26-yard strike to Proehl that tied the game late. The Patriots got the ball back with 1:21 to play and no timeouts. Was it enough time for young Tom Brady to engineer a Super Bowl-winning drive?
“With this field position, you have to just run the clock out,” John Madden said on Fox’s broadcast. “You have to play for overtime now.”
Instead Brady nickel-and-dimed the ball downfield: 5 yards to J.R. Redmond, 8 yards to Redmond, 11 yards to Redmond.
“This guy is really cool,” Madden said of Brady.
With 29 seconds left, Brady whirled around in the pocket and hit Troy Brown for 23 yards to the Rams’ 36-yard line. He found Jermaine Wiggins for six more yards down to the 30-yard line and spiked the ball to stop the clock with 7 seconds to play.
“What Tom Brady just did gives me goosebumps,” Madden said.
Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal was perfect as time expired.
Brady finished the game with 145 yards and a touchdown on 16-of-27 passing and was named the game’s most valuable player. In the early morning hours, he asked Belichick’s permission to skip the team flight to go to Disney World, Sports Illustrated reported.
“Of course you can go,” Belichick said. “How many times do you win the Super Bowl?”
Well, New England won it again at the end of the 2003 and 2004 seasons. They went back and lost in the 2007 and 2011 seasons, then won again at the end of the 2014 and 2016 seasons. Super Bowl LIII is Brady’s ninth appearance in an NFL championship. The Patriots have been to at least the conference championship game eight years running.
As Brady proudly proclaims, “We’re still here.”
The Rams, on the other hand, imploded. The Super Bowl loss marked the end of the “Greatest Show on Turf” era. Warner only spent two more seasons in St. Louis. The franchise missed the playoffs for 12 straight seasons from 2005 to 2016, when the team left St. Louis and moved back to Los Angeles.
But in Super Bowl LIII, the roles could be reversed again. Brady and Belichick are in the nadirs of their careers. The Rams are led by the NFL’s preeminent young quarterback, Jared Goff, and coach, Sean McVay.
One new dynasty could be on its way in, another on its way out. Or, there could still be enough time for Tom Brady to pull off another miracle.