A decade ago, the St. Louis Rams were on top of the NFL. That might be hard to believe if you hadn't been there.
Before this season's finale, Isaac Bruce remembered in vivid detail his game-deciding touchdown catch that helped beat the Tennessee Titans in the Super Bowl following the 1999 season.
Adjusting to an underthrown pass from Kurt Warner, watching in seeming slow motion as teammates blocked for him and opponents fleetingly gave chase. He had the details down, including the fog from the long-over halftime show that still hung over the field and a stadium that seemed to be on mute.
"The funny thing was, I couldn't hear anything," Bruce said. "I saw people in the end zone, I saw myself on the Jumbotron, I saw on the Jumbotron Orlando Pace with his big paw up in the air celebrating a touchdown before I even got there.
"It was interesting how everything just slowed down."
The whole year had an aura of magic, and the Rams seemed a team of destiny while going 13-3 and overwhelming opponents with 66 touchdowns and averaging 33 points.
"Some days it seems like it was just yesterday," said Warner, whose storybook rise fueled the franchise's glory days. "And other days it seems like it's been a long time since I was there and we were kind of doing our thing."
A pre-draft trade for Marshall Faulk, cut loose by the Colts for draft picks, set the stage for the title run and a second Super Bowl appearance later, after the 2001 season. The Rams won only four games in 1998 but came together in Year 3 for a crusty coaching staff headed by Dick Vermeil, with other over-60 hands in key spots.
The only real adversity came in August, when Trent Green was lost for the season with a knee injury sustained in a preseason game. The backup, Warner, threw only a handful of passes the previous season and began '99 as a major unknown.
"There was a point early in the year when I thought 'Wow, maybe this will be interesting,'" said former team president John Shaw, now a consultant to owner Chip Rosenbloom. "It was so exciting."
Mike Martz, the mastermind behind a high-flying offense that scored 500 points three straight seasons, said it was a "special place in time." The Rams were good enough for long enough that wide receiver Torry Holt and Pace, both seven-time Pro Bowlers, landed on the NFL's all-decade team.
"'The Greatest Show on Turf' will probably be remembered as the greatest era in the storied history of the Rams," Rosenbloom said. "With the luxury of hindsight, it seems the achievements of those days were even greater than what we thought back then. It all happened so fast."
Funny now how time flies, how fleeting success can be.
St. Louis hasn't been to the playoffs since 2004, is 6-42 the last three seasons under three head coaches and earned the first overall pick off last year's sad sack 1-15 finish. The previous two years the franchise just missed the booby prize, picking second.
Last year, the Rams were last in the NFL in offense, scoring one or fewer touchdowns in 13 games, and 29th in total defense.
Vermeil's to-the-point assessment: "Well, they're not very good. They don't have enough good players. You'd have to say they're a long ways away. Only one way to go but up."
The new regime of general manager Billy Devaney and coach Steve Spagnuolo tore it all down before last season and paid what they believed to be a short-term price with an ugly, uncompetitive, largely unknown roster falling short every week except one when they beat the two-win Lions.
Spagnuolo favors an aggressive defense complementing a ball-control offense, and said the game plan is sound.
"There will be some tweaking, but there won't be a major change," he said. "You don't do that. You stick with what you believe in."
Rosenbloom is fully behind the leadership team while busying himself attempting to arrange a sale of the franchise to a buyer who'll keep the team in St. Louis. Rosenbloom said Tuesday there's "nothing new" on that front.
"I love the word 'dynasty' and truly believe we have started to lay the foundation to be one someday," Rosenbloom said.
Vermeil likes the staff, too. From experience, he knows there's not a lot of patience for long-term rebuilding.
"Kansas City tried the same thing and Herman Edwards got fired after the second year," Vermeil said. "There are only seven rounds in the draft. You don't get to stay around long if you make too many mistakes."
Consistent with their never-look-back approach during the season, the Rams have little interest revisiting the salad days.
The team dismissed the idea of an in-season gathering since Warner, Bruce, Holt and defensive end Leonard Little were still playing last season (only Little was with the Rams). Vermeil was added to the team's "ring of honor" during the 2008 season, and some team members were introduced at games.
"We tried to recognize the anniversary in the most appropriate way we were able to," Rosenbloom said.
The team twice wore 1999 retro jerseys last season, but talk of a reunion failed to gain any traction.
"The word I got is the new regime doesn't want to look back," Vermeil said. "They'll never have another chance for a 10-year reunion."
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