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Rams' 'Greatest Show on Turf' wasn't just offense

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Fifteen years removed from the advent of the "Greatest Show on Turf", it's easy to look back and remember all the fireworks provided by an offense featuring guys such as Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace and so many others.

But the thing about the Greatest Show on Turf is that those players shared that turf with plenty of other players who did things every week that could cause a fan to jump out of his or her seat.

That was true of a defense that finished the season ranked No. 4 in the NFL, but it's also true of a special-teams group that didn't get the credit it deserved then and is probably still overlooked today.

"If you just look at what we had on offense, from the start that’s what you notice about the team," Bruce said. "But what was really special was the special teams."

That the 1999 Rams were well-schooled on special teams should be no surprise, given that Dick Vermeil was their coach. Known for his ability to bring a team together with his emotional but hard-nosed style, Vermeil was actually the NFL's first "official" special-teams coach. He took that role in 1969 under then-Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen.

Allen hired Vermeil after losing a playoff game the previous season on an allowed kick return touchdown and set out to study that part of the game more closely. Even as a head coach, Vermeil put an emphasis on special teams. He hired Frank Gansz, whom he later called one of the greatest special-teams coaches ever, and his first free-agent signing after taking over as coach of the Rams was kicker Jeff Wilkins.

And, although Wilkins turned into one of the most productive kickers in the league in his time with the Rams, it was the return units led by Tony Horne and Az-Zahir Hakim that really made fans glue their eyes to the television until the commercial break.

"In some games, we’d average starting at our own 40, which is unheard of," Bruce said. "The people that were on the kickoff-return team loved blocking for Tony Horne. It was just a show. Tony Horne was breaking kickoff returns for touchdowns that same year."

Horne, in particular, was the type of dynamic returner who could change a game and did so on many occasions that season. He was the driving force behind a kick return unit that led the league with an average of 25.1 yards per return. Horne himself averaged 29.7 yards per attempt, which was first in the NFL, and scored two touchdowns, including a league-best 101-yard return.

Early in the season, Horne was suspended four games for violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. He missed games 6-9, but Vermeil and Gansz remained in his corner. Vermeil threw an arm around Horne in the game before his suspension began and told him they'd be there for him as long as he was willing to make the necessary changes. Gansz and Hakim called him every day to check in on him.

When Horne returned, he didn't miss a beat and became one of the most overlooked stars of the team. To this day, he credits Gansz, who passed away in 2009, for keeping him and the entire unit going.

"The way he trained us, the way he talked to us, the way he treated us as human beings and respected us as grown men," Horne said. "That’s why we were great as a special-teams unit. Every day, every minute, every second we were with this man, he instilled in us being great, not just being good."

Hakim, meanwhile, also had his share of success. He finished 12th in punt return average at 10.5 yards per attempt with a touchdown, and his 461 punt return yards was third in the NFL.

"The punt return team was a show you didn’t want to miss," Bruce said. "When Az got the ball in his hands and the way everything was set up for him and his elusiveness, his ability to make people miss, and his speed. The people that were on the punt return team loved blocking for him."

The Rams did fine on kickoff and punt coverage, ranking about in the middle of the pack in both. Punter Mike Horan rarely got much work because of the offense, finishing tied for fewest punts in the league with 60.

But when push came to shove, the Rams' return units were almost as dangerous as their offense and, in many ways, an extension of it. Every day in practice, Gansz, who had a military background and the voice to go with it, would let his players know that the standard had been set by the offense and it was up to them to meet it.

"We didn’t want to be left out," Horne said. "The Greatest Show on Turf, it wasn’t just about the receivers or the offense. Part of the Greatest Show on Turf was the special teams. We wanted to make our name for ourselves. We wanted to be respected in that era, too. We didn’t want people to say ‘Ah, there goes the special-teams unit.’ We wanted to make noise. Coach Gansz called us 'elite warriors.' We didn’t want to be left out."