In the late ‘90s, football fans were treated to two of the greatest offenses in NFL history. The 1998 Minnesota Vikings and the 1999 St. Louis Rams put scoreboards across the league on tilt and transformed two average franchises into Super Bowl contenders.
That’s why it wasn’t a shock when former Rams receiver Isaac Bruce made a comparison between the two teams earlier this week. Speaking at a Hall of Fame event, Bruce declared that he and Tory Holt were the greatest receiver duo ever and said that they earned that title by winning a Super Bowl — something Moss and Carter didn’t do during their four seasons together in Minnesota.
A deeper look shows that the Rams not only took the blueprint the Vikings laid out in 1998, but they made it better.
The story starts with the 1997 Vikings. They had a solid offense that year, ranking eighth in total yardage (5,354) and 11th in points scored (354). Brad Johnson led an efficient passing game that ranked 14th in passing offense and featured 1,000-yard seasons from Carter (1,069) and Jake Reed (1,138).
While the passing game was good, the key to the Vikings’ offense was the running game. Robert Smith endured several injury-plagued seasons after arriving in Minnesota but broke out in 1997. Smith ran for 1,266 yards and six touchdowns while adding 37 receptions for 197 yards and a touchdown through the air behind three first-round picks (Korey Stringer, Randall McDaniel, Todd Steussie) on the offensive line.
The Vikings used their offense to make the playoffs and upset the New York Giants in the Wild Card game, but there was something missing from making the offense truly elite.
Enter Randy Moss.
When the Vikings took Moss with the 21st-overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, it was like hitting the NOS button on an already souped-up sports car. Moss took the league by storm with 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns while Carter put up 1,011 yards and 12 touchdowns to form the “Three Deep” trio with Reed.
Robert Smith turned in another productive season on the ground (1,187 yards, six TDs), and the Vikings’ offense was unstoppable — if they could find a quarterback.
After going 8-5 as a starter in 1997, Brad Johnson started the first two games in 1998 before suffering a season-ending neck injury. Randall Cunningham, who had spent 1996 retired laying granite and tile for a family business, was thrust into the starting role.
Coming off the bench for the second-straight year, Cunningham turned in one of the greatest seasons by a quarterback in Vikings history. At age 35, Cunningham threw for 3,704 yards and 34 touchdowns to lead the Vikings to the top seed in the NFC.
While the Vikings were dominating the league, the Rams were dragging through an abysmal season in St. Louis, the city they relocated to in 1995. With a 4-12 record, the Rams ranked 24th in points and 27th in total offense. But they had Isaac Bruce in his prime.
Bruce was beginning to develop into an elite weapon early in his career, leading the NFL in receiving yardage in 1996. While Bruce was clearly the top target on a bad offense, he suffered injuries in 1997 and 1998 that limited him to 17 games.
Outside of Bruce, the Rams didn’t have much firepower. Tony Banks was their starting quarterback and Ricky Proehl was their best receiver outside of Bruce. Outside of Bruce and left tackle Orlando Pace, the Rams had a dearth of notable talent and were in full rebuild mode. But a year later they responded with one of the greatest offseasons in NFL history.
St. Louis began by trading second- and fifth-round picks to the Indianapolis Colts for Marshall Faulk. Then they selected Holt with the sixth-overall pick in the 1999 draft and signed Trent Green to be their starting quarterback. With a complete overhaul along the offensive line, the Rams had their offense figured out. Then Green tore his ACL during a preseason game.
Enter Kurt Warner.
Like Cunningham, Warner had a random path to a starting job after bagging groceries and playing in the arena football league. Unlike his Minnesota counterpart, Warner was seven years younger and was about to enter the prime of a Hall of Fame career.
Timing was everything for the Rams, who watched Warner throw for 41 touchdowns en route to winning the MVP award in his first season as a starter. Faulk became the “Smith” of the offense, running for 1,381 yards and seven touchdowns but added 1,048 yards and five touchdowns through the air.
Holt didn’t have a similar impact to the one Moss had for the Vikings but he did well enough to move Prohl to the No. 3 receiver role. With explosive players all over the field, the Rams went 13-3 and claimed the top seed in the NFC.
The two teams clashed in an NFC playoff matchup that year with the Rams claiming a 49-37 victory, but both teams became the dominant offenses of the 2000s.
The Vikings’ window to win a Super Bowl continued through the 2001 season as the team transitioned from Cunningham to Jeff George to Daunte Culpepper. The Vikings ranked top five in total offense from 1998 to 2000 and three more years from 2002 to 2004.
Meanwhile, the Rams became The Greatest Show on Turf, scoring over 500 points in three-straight seasons from 1999 to 2001. While the Rams fell out of the top 10 in total offense in 2002, they jumped back in for four more seasons from 2003 to 2006 and made five playoff appearances.
The difference between the two teams was their defense. The Rams had a slew of young defensive stars that helped them rank in the top 10 in 1999 and 2001 while the Vikings routinely fielded a defense that was outside the top 20.
While Bruce uses his Super Bowl ring as proof that he was part of a better duo, the St. Louis defense was really the difference-maker between the two teams. If Bruce had played with the Vikings’ defense, he may not have that ring on his finger and the Greatest Show on Turf becomes just another high-scoring offense.