- Nick Wagoner, ESPN St. Louis Rams reporter
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Whether it's Kurt Warner at his home in Arizona or in studio with Marshall Faulk at NFL Network, Isaac Bruce in Florida, Torry Holt in North Carolina, Orlando Pace in St. Louis, Mike Martz in California or really any other St. Louis Ram from the 1999 Super Bowl XXXIV champions, the average Sunday afternoon rarely offers much in the way of surprises.
In the 15 years since the birth of the Greatest Show on Turf, many elements of the dynamic offense that was so unique have become commonplace in stadiums all over the NFL. The Rams will celebrate that legacy on "Monday Night Football" against San Francisco when they remember the 15th anniversary of the championship season in a halftime ceremony. Most of that team is expected to attend, and the Rams will wear their 1999 throwback uniforms in homage.
Throwback uniforms aren't needed to see the lasting impact of that Rams offense. Turn on just about any game and you will see supposedly high-tech passing games with route combinations, protection schemes and athletes the likes of which have never been seen before.
But that is not really the case.
"All around the league you can see the innovation, the things that sprang from what we did as a group," Bruce said. "I see combinations we ran, I think just about every position coach, wide receiver coach, some offensive coordinators, guys that have been position coaches that are now coordinators or head coaches now that I’ve run into, they’ll tell me that they show their players our film, the way I ran routes, the way I came off the football, the way I blocked down the field, certain things like that. That was everything we learned in our meeting room. We really hammered that in every week as a unit to block for each other, be the fastest group, the most explosive group. I think we had the best group with the most creativity. So you see a lot of it just floating around the league. Not only in the NFL, but college as well."
The Rams were doing it in 1999, long before the league made rule changes that encouraged more passing and more scoring. Today, the NFL is viewed as a passing league, the next cycle in the evolution of the game. But , it's a cycle that started in part because of the 1999 Rams and in the years since, the "Greatest Show on Turf" has taken on a life beyond one championship season.
It was after the Rams' Super Bowl loss to New England in 2001 that the league began adjusting the rules to allow receivers more time and space to run free and put an emphasis on getting defenders to keep their hands off receivers. Like the rule outlawing the head slap trademarked by Deacon Jones, those rule changes are perhaps the most tangible way in which the Rams' offense changed the game.
"The thing you look at now is because of all the rule changes, it’s made it easier," Warner said. "What we did at a time where you could still grab and hold guys and you could still hit guys over the middle and all of those different things, now when you look at it, I think there’s a degree of success allowed in the NFL that has become a lot easier. I’m not really surprised by what guys are doing. I look at it like we were the first ones to do it. We did it just like that in an era where it wasn’t popular or wasn’t the norm."
Indeed, there was nothing conventional about how the Rams' offense went about its business. Rooted in the principles first wrought by Sid Gillman and Francis Schmidt, the Rams' vertical passing offense that sprang from the mind of Martz was a direct descendant of Don Coryell. Coryell's coaching tree would eventually include names like Joe Gibbs, Norv Turner, Ernie Zampese, Jim Hanifan and, of course, Martz.
At its core, the "Air Coryell" offense operates under simple ideals intended to create open spaces and favorable matchups. The offense supplied an endless array of motions, formations and personnel groupings that would allow the Rams to spread out defenses and mix deep and intermediate passes with power running. But the passes always came first.
"I think you get exposed when you start moving guys around in matchups and you can take control of the tempo of the game," Martz said. "When you do that, you force defenses into doing something they don’t want to be. Once you find out the rules a defense has and the more complicated a defense, the more you can take advantage."
Having superior talents like Holt, Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl on the outside combined with Faulk's unique route-running ability at the running back spot nearly guaranteed Martz could get a matchup he liked on every play. Having a talented offensive line capable of allowing time to push the ball down the field and a fearless quarterback in Warner unafraid to stand in the pocket and deliver accurate passes made for the perfect mix of personnel and scheme.
"In terms of the depth of which we ran routes, the speed with which we ran routes, the creativity in how we ran routes, the kind of formations we posed to teams week in and week out, I feel strongly that we were a springboard to a lot of teams now and how coordinators now run the offense," Holt said. "A lot of teams don’t run full pumps and squirrel routes and running an out route then running up and running a comeback route. A lot of teams weren’t doing that, but myself and Isaac and Az and Ricky, our ability to run any route on the route tree gave coach Martz the flexibility to call anything."
And call anything Martz did. After working as quarterbacks coach in Washington in 1998 when the Redskins started 0-7, Martz realized his offense wasn't taking advantage of the best plays it had in its arsenal in a given game plan. Plays that were working well on third and long would go unused because there simply weren't enough opportunities to use them in a game.
"We’ve got these great third downs we don’t use, we started using them on first down, too," Martz said. "If we like them that much, why don’t we throw a 20-yard pass on first down, too? When we got going, the more success we had, the more fun we had, it was like throwing logs on the fire then."
The fire turned into a towering inferno as the Rams actually put up numbers more commonly seen in video games set to 'rookie' level.
That team finished first in the NFL in total yards per game (400.8), passing yards per game (272.1), scoring (32.9 points per game), and its 526 points was then the third-highest output in league history. Warner earned Most Valuable Player with Faulk finishing second in the voting and taking home the Offensive Player of the Year award.
To most members of the 'Greatest Show,' the circus ended too early, and that one championship wasn't enough to really cement the legacy that could have been built. But nobody can ever take away the title the 1999 Rams won, and if they need a reminder of their place in history, they need only to turn on the television on Sunday afternoons.
"I see a lot of plays, routes, schemes and protections offensively being run now that we ran then," Holt said. "That in itself shows you how people respected and admired what we were doing on the football field. I think our legacy is that. I think we were a springboard to this new era of offense that is now being played. The Greatest Show on Turf was the kickstarter for that."
St. Louis Rams were a pass-first team before it was popular