Sunday, January 23, 2011

January 23, 2000: The defense (almost) won

ST. LOUIS - The ball floated toward the corner of the end zone. The Rams' two best receivers, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, were watching the ball sail over their heads. All-World running back Marshall Faulk was also watching it as it floated toward little-known and little-used receiver Ricky Proehl, who was pinned against the sideline. It looked like perfect coverage, like a ball that was being thrown away. It looked like the Rams would have to try again...

As the game kept slugging along, getting closer and closer to the end, everybody watching kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. There's no way, people watching thought, that this was going to end 6-5, right? There's no way the Greatest Show on Turf was going to be held without a touchdown at home, right? Right?

Remarkably, that's exactly what was happening. The high-powered St. Louis Rams offense, the offense that had set numerous NFL records that season, was being completely and utterly shut down by the powerful Tampa Bay defense. The immovable object was shutting down the irresistable force. If Tampa Bay had anything resembling a competent offense, this game would probably have been over. Instead, it was 6-5 late in the fourth quarter, when St. Louis got the ball back at midfield after an interception.

All game long, Tampa's defense had rose to the occasion. It started on the Rams' first offensive play, when Kurt Warner threw an interception that led to a Tampa Bay field goal. It was the start of a long day for Warner, who threw three interceptions total against the stifling Buccaneers defense, including one at the 3-yard line. But given one more reprieve, one more shot to get his team into the end zone, the former grocery store clerk from Cedar Falls, Iowa, finally delivered.

It wasn't a magical drive that helped the Rams beat the Buccaneers, not some magical formula that helped the league's best offense figure out how to beat the league's best defense. It was one picture-perfect pass. Warner threw it deep along the sideline toward Proehl. The pass was perfect, hitting Proehl in stride in the front corner of the end zone. Despite outstanding coverage by Tampa Bay defensive back Brian Kelly, Proehl was able to get his hands on the ball at the highest possible spot, securing the first touchdown of the game.

The two-point conversion failed, but it didn't seem to matter. Now trailing 11-6, the thought that Tampa Bay could drive down for a touchdown seemed laughable. But the Buccaneers put a scare into the Rams, overcoming two sacks to drive down deep into Rams territory.

Then came the controversy. Tampa Bay completed a pass to Bert Emanuel down to the St. Louis 22-yard line with 44 seconds left. Since the pass was completed in bounds, the Buccaneers called their final time out to stop the clock. While the teams were huddled up for the time out, the officials were called over to the replay booth to examine the play. While replays showed what appeared to be a perfectly good, unquestionable catch, the officials shockingly came out and announced that the play had been overturned and was an incomplete pass.

Now facing a fourth-and-22 rather than a fourth-and-10, Tampa Bay couldn't convert. Their perfectly executed defensive game plan, the one that had held the mighty Rams in check, had been foiled by one perfect pass and one completely imperfect call. The Rams went to the Super Bowl, while Tampa Bay would have to wait three more years to get there.

Proehl's catch:

Emanuel's controversial non-catch:

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