Oct. 18, 2000
A TRUE CHAMPION
By Chas Jordan
It could not have been scripted any better, and in fact, it has since been recounted and rehashed throughout playgrounds, backyards and beside office water coolers throughout America. In what now ranks as one of the most exciting finishes in Super Bowl history, it came down to one play, one tackle, and one yard to decide last season's NFL Champion. With only six seconds remaining in Super Bowl XXXIV, the Tennessee Titans and the St. Louis Rams met at the line of scrimmage for one final, determining play. Down 23-16, the Titans stood 10 yards from the game-tying touchdown and the first overtime in Super Bowl history. As Titans' quarterback Steve McNair stepped behind center, everyone knew it would come down to one final pass play to decide the game. What happened next represents one of the greatest plays in NFL history, and few got the opportunity to experience it the way Rams starting free safety and former Virginia standout Keith Lyle did.
"I was in on a three-on-two combination [zone coverage] on the right side of the field, and [McNair] threw to the other side of the field on a little slant pattern. Mike Jones made the tackle, and when I knew [Titans' receiver] Kevin Dyson was down and did not score, I looked at the clock and then hugged Mike," said Lyle.
It served as the perfect ending to one of the most improbable seasons for the St. Louis Rams. A team picked by very few to even make the playoffs, the Rams constantly beat the odds to shock everyone throughout the '99 regular season. As a squad who showed great character and never lost faith in themselves, it should come as no surprise St. Louis found a way to win the Super Bowl, even if it meant fighting for the last yard.
"It is really hard to put into words the emotions I felt. When it happened, it was almost surreal," said Lyle. "I just remember the confetti coming down and sitting up there on stage with teammates Todd Lyte, Isaac Bruce and Kurt Warner. We were at the podium with the Super Bowl trophy, and the team owner was up there with us. It was so unbelievable."
Yet, for Lyle and the entire Rams organization, success came at a heavy price. Years of losing records and serving as one of the NFL's most ineffective teams preceded the bittersweet Super Bowl victory. Before last season, the Rams had not made the playoffs since 1989. In addition, the entire franchise moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis in 1995, and the major transition proved taxing and difficult as everyone slowly became adjusted to their new home. Only four members, including Lyle, remain from the L.A. squad. For those players in particular, the Super Bowl victory makes all that they have been through even more meaningful.
"I have been on this team for seven seasons, and for my first five years, I was on the losing end. When people would play us, they would think, `the Rams, that's a win,' and it was frustrating at times," said Lyle. "We just got counted out of a lot of things. It was tough when I would go home during the playoffs and watch my buddies play on television. To wait so long to finally be on top is a great feeling. The four guys on the team from L.A, Isaac Bruce, Todd Lyte, D'Marko Farr, and myself, we have been through so much and through so many losing seasons. To finally be on top, it is incredible."
The Cinderella story of the 1999 St. Louis Rams has served as an inspiration to clubs throughout the NFL, reaffirming many teams' belief in themselves and rekindling their desire for a championship. Yet, according to Lyle, this new "if the Rams can do it, so can we" attitude remains much easier said than done. The former Virginia standout believes producing a championship team requires a special and unique blend of talented players, team character and camaraderie among the players.
"You have got to have the right people and players with the right character," said Lyle. "I have never been on a team in my life where everybody got along and played together so well, and you have got to have that cohesion. The whole season was fun from the beginning to the end."
Lyle and the Rams entered the 2000 season in an extremely unfamiliar position. As the defending Super Bowl champs, the entire team must take a new and different approach toward each and every game. The goal no longer remains to win a championship, but instead, to now maintain their status as the NFL's top team. For the entire 2000 NFL campaign, the Rams will be the team to beat, and through the first six games of the year, Lyle has already felt the effects of being one of the league's marquee teams.
"For the first time in our professional careers, we went into this season as marked men. People study our tapes much harder trying to find the weaknesses in our defense and offense, and other teams now try to emulate what we do," said Lyle. "It has been a tough road and we have taken some team's best shots, but we are doing well so far [this season]. As a professional athlete, you want a shot at defending the title. That is what we are doing, and hopefully, we can defend it twice."
Though the team's success remains a fairly recent and somewhat unfamiliar position for the Rams, Lyle's personal achievements on the field continue to distinguish him as one of the NFL's top defenders. In his first professional season, he was named to the '94 All-Rookie team by Pro Football Weekly, and by his second year with the Rams, he earned a spot in the starting lineup. Over the past four seasons, Lyle has more interceptions, 23, than any other defender in the league and was selected as a first alternate for the 2000 Pro Bowl. He attributes his success not to the help of fellow defenders, but to the high caliber of receivers he has faced every day in practice since joining the Rams in 1994.
"We have had great receivers here for a long time, and players like Isaac Bruce and Flipper Anderson taught me a lot when I was a rookie," said Lyle. "Especially now, playing against this offense [in practice] has helped me become a complete player. They are so good, and they have so many shifts and formations that it opens me up and lets me see a whole lot of different things."
Lyle has yet to forget the veteran leadership and advice he received throughout his first few seasons in the league, and he now looks to provide the same type of guidance to rookie center and fellow Virginia graduate, John St. Clair. Lyle understands his expert tutelage could prove extremely beneficial in helping St. Clair adjust to the NFL. So far, Lyle likes what he sees in the first-year Ram.
"You never call a rookie by his name, so we call him "VA" around here. When you come into the league as a rookie, it is hard enough because you have to work on football techniques while acclimating to the professional level and meeting new guys that are much older than you," said Lyle. "He is a good football player, and he is doing a good job. He has good speed, he works hard and he is only going to get a lot better."
For St. Clair and the rest of the Rams squad, the presence of Lyle will always serve as an invaluable resource helping to maintain and even further the team's overall level of excellence. From the bottom to the top and everywhere in between, Lyle has experienced it all. Through the worst of seasons or the greatest of moments, he has maintained the same positive outlook and continued to aspire towards success. Even before winning his first Super Bowl ring last season, Lyle has always possessed the qualities of a true champion.