The 1999 St. Louis Rams, the greatest show on turf, were the innovators of the many offensive formations and game plans that you see in today’s NFL.
Dick Vermeil, who had coached the Philadelphia Eagles and the St. Louis Rams to Super Bowls, got his start coaching in 1969 as an assistant with the Los Angeles Rams, but it wasn’t until the breakout season of 1999 with the Rams that the other coaches around the league began to take notice.
One of the best decisions that Vermeil made was to hire a coach by the name of Mike Martz to be his offensive coordinator.
The Rams had been stockpiling talent since 1994 when they had drafted wide receiver Isaac Bruce from Memphis. In 1997, the Rams drafted what would become the best offensive left tackle in the NFL in Orlando Pace to solidify the offensive line. Another key piece, wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim, was drafted in 1998, the same year that the Rams inked Kurt Warner to a contract.
The Rams also signed wide receiver Ricky Proehl as a free agent from Chicago before the ’98 season.
In 1999, two huge pieces were added by the Rams with the selection of Torry Holt and acquisition of Marshall Faulk from Indianapolis.
The stage was now set for the greatest show on turf to wreak havoc on opposing defenses, and did they so, scoring an NFL best 540 points during the season.
Vermeil had always been a micromanager up until this point in his career, but after the Martz hiring, he was smart enough to let Martz have complete autonomy over the offense.
In 1999 the running game was still king in the NFL, but that philosophy changed with the Rams, who would split Faulk out in four-receiver sets, something that no team had done up to this point.
Martz would design specific run routes for Faulk and the Rams would use the passing game to build a big lead and then protect the lead by running the football.
Faulk would go on to set a then-NFL-record 1,048 yards receiving out of the backfield and would also run the ball for 1,381 yards.
No team had ever had this kind of dual threat out of the backfield.
The Rams were also innovators with their wide receivers as no longer did the tall and lanky bodies matter. The Rams would use smaller wide receivers to run routes all over the field.
The ’99 Rams had no starting receiver over six feet tall; Bruce and Hakim were both 5-foot-10.
The Rams also changed the game with the use of the tight end. Prior to the Rams, the tight end had been used primarily as an extra blocker. With Vermeil, the tight ends was now these big athletic bodies that now only could not only block but also became an important part of the passing game.
On first down, no longer was the ball handed to the running back. The Rams threw the ball 59 percent of the time and averaged over seven yards per play on those first down throws.
All this may have not happened if not for an injury to quarterback Trent Green during the pre-season of 1999.
Kurt Warner had signed as a free agent at the start of the ’98 season as a backup to Green. With Green suffering the injury, Warner took over and never looked back as the would-be Hall Of Fame quarterback guided the Rams to a 13-3 season and a Super Bowl title over the Tennessee Titans.
That season, Warner completed a then-record 65.1 percent of his passes and proved to the league that you could win by passing the ball more than running the ball.
After the ’99 season, the league took notice and began to implement rule changes that would benefit the receivers and the offense. These rule changes are continually evolving as the league now has an offense-first mentality; that is what drives TV ratings across the league.
Vermeil and Martz both needed each other to be the innovators on offense that they were. The Rams were 9-23 under Vermeil before the arrival of Martz.
The two coached the Rams and other teams in the NFL. Vermeil went on to coach the Kansas City Chiefs, the team that had the NFL’s best offense in 2003.
Martz coached the Rams to another Super Bowl in 2001 and was beaten by Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
The offenses in today’s NFL owe a lot to Dick Vermeil, Mike Martz, and that St. Louis Rams team as they were true offensive innovators and ultimately changed the game for the better.