Napa Valley native Dick Vermeil was one of the 73,000 in attendance at Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002 when the St. Louis Rams, the team he had led to a championship two years prior, lost to the New England Patriots in heartbreaking fashion.
Since then, the two franchises have gone in opposite directions. That win for the Patriots was the beginning of a dynasty that still has legs almost 20 years later. On the other side, the Rams made the playoffs only three times over the next 17 years.
Sunday will mark what could be a flip of the script.
The Rams are back in the Super Bowl, as are Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick, a duo that has led New England to four championship titles and 15 playoff appearances since these two franchises last met in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots are the old dogs now, and they’ll face off against a high-octane and exciting Rams team that has drawn many comparisons to the team Vermeil engineered in 2000, dubbed the Greatest Show on Turf.
Vermeil, who grew up in Calistoga and coached at Napa Junior College in 1964 before breaking into college and then pro coaching, spoke to the Napa Valley Register via phone from Key West, Florida, where’s he on vacation with his family. He said he plans to watch the game there and considers the teams to be very close on paper.
“I think it’s a very evenly matched game statistically when you study New England’s offense against the Rams’ defense, and the Rams’ offense against New England’s defense. When you study both sides of the game, you see they’re very evenly matched,” he said. “Even though New England lost more games, they were probably better when they lost those games than the team that beat them and they have a chance to prove that in the Super Bowl.”
This year’s Rams have been oft compared to Vermeil’s Rams, which have been credited with ushering in a new era of offense-oriented football. In 2000, the Super Bowl title year and Vermeil’s last season with St. Louis, the Rams ranked first in the league in points and yards, per profootballreference.com. They weren’t bad on the other side of the ball either, ranking fourth in points allowed, sixth in yards allowed, and ninth in turnovers per game.
The Rams’ offensive rankings this season? Second in points and yards.
And while the Rams’ defense has been considered solid all season, it ranks 20th in points allowed and 19th in yards allowed, a far cry from the dominant two-way powerhouse in 1999. Vermeil said he sees the comparison, but would still take his Rams over this year’s, pointing out that how loaded they were on offense above anything else.
“Well, I’m not sure this team playing in this upcoming Super Bowl has five Hall of Famers on the offensive side of the ball,” Vermeil said. “We already have Kurt Warner in the Hall of Fame, Marshall Faulk is in in the Hall of Fame, our left tackle Orlando Pace is in and I believe Isaac Bruce will go in this turn, and a year or two down the road Torry Holt will be in it. I don’t know if the Rams have that combined talent that we had then, but they’re certainly well coached and are winning just as many games.”
Vermeil was quick to add that the Rams are talented in their own right. Third-year quarterback Jared Goff has shown flashes of greatness this season and All-Pro running back Todd Gurley scored a league-high 21 touchdowns this season.
“They’re going to be dominating players, as long as they have the dominating supporting cast,” Vermeil said. “The quarterback needs more help from the other 10 guys than any other position on the team, and when they’re inadequate or not good enough, then he cannot show his talents.
“With Goff, you’re talking about a quarterback who, after he was picked No. 1 overall, people were calling him a flop because the whole offensive team was poor; they didn’t have enough good players on the team. So he needs support to demonstrate how good he is. As long as they keep supporting him with equal talent around him, he’s going to be outstanding.”
Not to mention that their 32-year old head coach, Sean McVay, has stepped into his own as one of the rising premier coaches in the league. Vermeil and McVay keep in constant communication.
“I talked to him yesterday,” Vermeil said on Monday. “I’m very impressed. Who wouldn’t be impressed with a young coach that has accomplished what he’s accomplished. Granted, you don’t do it alone and he’s got a great coaching staff around him, but I’m very impressed with his poise. I just think he has tremendous poise for a young coach. Heck, he has tremendous poise for an old coach! I don’t know if you can learn it. I think it’s just born in you, and I’m very, very impressed.”
Vermeil got his start in the NFL at a similar point in his life. He was 32 when the then-Los Angeles Rams hired him to be one of the first special teams coaches in the NFL. Looking back, he knows he probably couldn’t be doing what McVay is doing today.
“No way could I have been a head coach in the NFL (when I was his age),” Vermeil said. “No way was I qualified at that age to do what Sean has been doing.”
The NFL experienced an influx of offensive-minded teams this season. The league saw the most touchdowns in history and had its first game in which two teams each scored 50 points. To top it off, the Rams and Patriots’ offenses are each ranked among the top four in the league.
But Vermeil doesn’t predict that this year’s Super Bowl will be another run-up-the-score type of affair.
“The two teams in the Super Bowl are a bit of throwbacks. It seems these two teams are running the ball more and playing defense,” he said. “All the teams that have been eliminated were more of a spread offense, a lot of the college influence, with zone and pass-options and all these other things, but New England has a basic, old-fashioned running game and the Rams have a basic old-fashioned running game with two backs in the backfield, where some people don’t even have a fullback on their roster.
“I think the two teams in the Super Bowl reflect more of what teams used to do than what most teams are doing now.”
As for a prediction? Vermeil is riding with his Rams, picking them to win 24-21 over the Patriots.