Fortunes turn in four quarters of football
For New England sports fans, it's the sweetest sound in the Super Bowl XXXVI video from NFL Films: a smug Ricky Proehl, amid the pre-kickoff cacophony of the Superdome, arrogantly announcing that "tonight, a dynasty is born!"
Proehl proved prophetic. His House of St. Louis crumbled that evening, to be replaced by another budding dynasty. New England won the game while Proehl and the Rams, 14-point favorites, were embarrassed in one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.
Of course, rational observers knew then that the two-touchdown spread was a sham. The Patriots had gone two straight months without giving up more than 17 points in a single game. They hosted St. Louis earlier that season, with the Rams edging out a 24-17 victory. But the game is faster indoors on turf, said the "pundits," failing to realize that both St. Louis losses that year happened at home, indoors, on turf. The notion that St. Louis was capable of beating New England by more than 14 points made no sense, except in the blinding darkness of irrationality that defines pre-Super Bowl hype.
But still, the expectation of a major blowout by St. Louis was the reality of the day when America awoke on Super Bowl Sunday 2002. This expectation served only to heighten the impact of the seismic waves that reverberated throughout the NFL later that evening. Kings were crowned. Reputations were ruined. The apple cart of NFL power was upset, overturned, and smashed to tiny pieces. When the Patriots step on the field at St. Louis this weekend, they'll do it as lords of the NFL; the Rams enter the game as dirt-faced peasants looking to steal a tasty morsel of victory from New England's overflowing treasure chest of triumph.
Here are the key figures – both victors and vanquished – whose fortunes hung in the balance of four quarters of football played on Feb. 3, 2002 as outlined by the Herodotus of gridiron history, the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
Mike Martz – St. Louis's second-year head coach rolled his fleshy white body out of bed on the morning of Feb. 3 as the offensive "genius" who had masterminded the Greatest Show on Turf – a team that scored an average of 523 points per season from 1999 to 2001. He was the offensive coordinator who helped the Rams to a championship in Super Bowl XXXIV and who helped quarterback Kurt Warner go from supermarket stock boy to two-time NFL MVP. His reputation only blossomed during the 2001 season. The Rams chalked up a 14-2 regular season record while scoring more than 500 points for the third consecutive season.
When his head hit the pillow that evening, Martz was the most ridiculed coach in the NFL, the pig-headed architect of a colossal defeat who gave the ball to his best player, Marshall Faulk, just 21 times in 66 plays. The "genius" label has never returned. But Martz's reputation as a big-game chokemeister has grown like a stinking fungus that he can't wash away. In his only playoff game since that day – a 29-23 loss to the upstart Carolina Panthers last season – Martz opted to play for overtime rather than go for a game-winning touchdown after his team drove deep into Carolina territory. He then watched as the Rams lost the game in double overtime and as he lost an opportunity to mend his reputation via a second Super Bowl appearance.
Bill Belichick – The NFL's resident "genius" of 2004 was anything but when he opened his eyes on the morning of Feb. 3, 2002. Belichick entered Super Bowl XXXVI with a career record of just 55-61. The public's strongest memory of his coaching career was his 2000 on-air meltdown in New York in which he announced that he was resigning as "HC of the NYJ." It was cited as a painfully awkward effort to emerge from the large and resplendent shadow of his meaty mentor, Bill Parcells. "Pundits" went so far as to question Belichick's sanity.
The whispers were silenced in Super Bowl XXXVI. Belichick's Patriots held the Greatest Show on Turf to 17 points, a performance that cemented his reputation as a defensive mastermind. Quietly, new rumors spread around the NFL: rumors that questioned whether Parcells would have won two Super Bowls as the head coach of the Giants if not for the assistance of his defensive coordinator. Belichick's career coaching record, meanwhile, has improved dramatically and now stands at 88-71. And with his four Super Bowl titles as a coordinator or head coach, Belichick has clearly eclipsed Parcells in the pantheon of great modern coaches. Parcells last won a Super Bowl 14 years ago and it doesn't appear he'll add one any time soon. Belichick is threatening to chalk up number five at the end of this season.
The St. Louis Rams – The Rams entered Super Bowl XXXVI with a record of 42-12 in their previous three seasons, including a 5-1 mark in the playoffs and an NFL championship. They also boasted the most prolific offense in NFL history, scoring an average 32.3 points per regular season game from 1999 to 2001.
They mustered just 17 points against the Patriots. The St. Louis organization and its mighty offense have never recovered. The Rams have gone 23-17 since Super Bowl XXXVI, including a loss in their only playoff game. Their per-game offensive output has plummeted by 27 percent, to 23.6 points per game.
The New England Patriots – The Patriots were an NFL laughingstock for their first 41 years. It was a franchise defined by bumbling ownership, poor coaching, playoff meltdowns, drug-addicted players, a cheap, lousy stadium, and lowlights too numerous to mention. Somehow the Patriots managed to play their way into three championship games (one AFL title game, two Super Bowls) in those 41 seasons. They lost all three by a combined score of 132-41.
New England has lost just 10 games in the 42 it has played since Super Bowl XXXVI. Along the way, it has established itself as the premier franchise in the NFL. The team's first game after their Super Bowl victory was played in a brand new, privately funded stadium. A second championship banner was hung in that arena two months ago. Players take pay cuts to perform there. The ownership is considered the best in football, perhaps the best in sports. And the New England franchise that entered Super Bowl XXXVI as a plucky upstart recently strung together the longest win streak in NFL history.
Kurt Warner – Warner was the king of the NFL when he said his morning prayers on Feb. 3. He had just been named NFL MVP for the second time. He had one Super Bowl ring on his finger, and the entire football world expected him to add another ring that evening. From 1999-2001, Warner had one of the most statistically impressive three-year runs by any quarterback in NFL history: 935 for 1,392; 12,612 yards, 98 TDs, 53 INTs, and a 103.4 passer rating. They're numbers highly reminiscent of Dan Marino's record-shattering run from 1984-86.
Warner's career took a stunning turn for the worse that evening. He threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown in a three-point loss. At one point, he was smashed in the mouth by Willie McGinest. The hit appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and the dazed look on Warner's face as he attempted to lift himself off the carpet after the smackdown became the iconic image of Super Bowl XXXVI.
His career has never recovered. Warner has thrown just eight touchdown passes since that day and went 32 months before winning another NFL game.
Tom Brady – New England's second-year quarterback awoke from his locker-room nap on Feb. 3 with just 16 career starts under his belt. Brady didn't even know during the week if he was going to play on Super Bowl Sunday. He hurt his ankle in the AFC title game a week earlier and was replaced by veteran Drew Bledsoe. It's hard to believe in hindsight, but a large and vocal contingent of New Englanders and NFL "pundits" lobbied all week for the more experienced Bledsoe to get the nod in Super Bowl XXXVI.
The "pundits" – namely in the doughy form of John Madden – spouted their stupidity once again at the end of the game when Brady took the field at his own 17 with the game knotted, no timeouts and less than 90 seconds to play. Play for overtime said Madden and the football intelligentsia. The Patriots did not. Brady proceeded to lead the only walk-off scoring driving in Super Bowl history. He became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl and earned an MVP trophy in the process.
The "pundits" insisted it was a fluke, but Brady went out and led the league in touchdown passes the following season. He padded his trophy case and engraved his name in NFL history when he concluded the 2003 season with another last-second scoring drive in Super Bowl XXXVIII and became just the fourth player in NFL history to garner multiple Super Bowl MVP awards.
Ricky Proehl – The football gods have made Proehl pay for the hubris he displayed moments before kickoff in Super Bowl XXXVI. They have twice dangled a tantalizing carrot of Super Bowl heroism in front of his face. They have twice offered Proehl an opportunity to add a postscript to his career beyond just "spunky NFL journeyman." They have twice kicked him in the balls, taken his carrot and laughed in his face.
Proehl, of course, scored the touchdown for St. Louis that tied Super Bowl XXXVI at 17-17 with 1:30 to play. Two years later, while playing for the Carolina Panthers against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII, he scored a touchdown to tie the game at 29-29 with 68 seconds left. Both times, Proehl's score could have forced overtime. Both times, the Super Bowl ended badly for Proehl: a last-minute New England drive resulting in a game-winning Adam Vinatieri field goal.
Instead of Super Bowl hero, Proehl will be remembered only as the answer to an NFL trivia question. Suffice it to say, he should have kept his mouth shut on the afternoon of Feb. 3, 2002.
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