NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Throughout the St. Louis Rams’ facility, there are various visual reminders of the franchise’s crowning moment.
It was Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta on Jan. 30, 2000, and Tennessee Titans receiver Kevin Dyson is outstretched and reaching one yard short of the goal line to tie the game while being tackled by Rams linebacker Mike Jones as time expires. It gave the franchise that once was the Los Angeles Rams its only Super Bowl victory.
It was also the crowning moment as the only Super Bowl appearance for the Titans’ franchise that once was the Houston Oilers. And the head coach who bridged the gap from the team’s move from Houston to Nashville in 1997 and directed that Super Bowl season is now head coach of those very same St. Louis Rams.
Come Sunday, the Titans (3-4) will visit the Rams (3-5), and second-year St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher, who coached the Oilers/Titans for 16-plus years from 1994-2010, will square off against the franchise that gave him his head coaching break.
“I’ve gotten used to it,” Fisher said earlier this week about all the visual evidence of the Super Bowl victory by the team he now coaches over the one he once coached.
“It was hard at first with Kevin Dyson reaching out and Mike (Jones) laying on his back and all that stuff,” he added.
On the other side of the field, the Titans will be led by third-year head coach Mike Munchak, who replaced Fisher in 2011. He was an assistant for Fisher during his entire stint as franchise head coach, including offensive line coach from 1997-2010.
“That’s something … when the game starts, there won’t be a whole lot of that thought,” Munchak said about coaching against a Fisher-coached team for the first time. “It’s something you probably talk a little more about in the off-season, bragging rights, which we assume we’re going to have.
“We know what kind of team he has, and I think he knows what team we have.”
While Fisher coaching against the Titans for the first time is an obvious story line, the most pressing is that both teams are in dire need of a victory. The Titans, who started the season 3-1, are coming off a bye week after having lost three games in a row; the Rams, who snapped a three-game skid with two wins, have now lost two straight games, including a tough 14-9 home defeat Monday night to NFC West rival Seattle.
“We haven’t won a football game in a while,” said Munchak, whose team is coming off a bye week after losing at home a week ago Sunday against the 49ers. The Titans’ last win came Sept. 29 against the Jets.
“We’re hungry for it,” he added. ” … The attitude is great, so I’m excited to see how we’re going to play Sunday.”
Both teams have had to deal with injuries to their starting quarterback. Thing is, the Titans only lost Jake Locker for two games to hip and knee injuries before he returned against the 49ers. The Rams lost Sam Bradford for the season when he tore the ACL in his left knee during a loss a week ago Sunday to Carolina.
“He looks good,” Munchak said of Locker once the team returned to practice this week. “I think he’s ready to go. I’m glad all of that’s behind us.
“I’m glad we’re not having that discussion all these two weeks about can he play, how’s his knee, how’s his hip. That’s gone. We feel good about him, and his leg’s stronger. No limitations.”
Locker was impressive in guiding the Titans to the 3-1 start before being injured and replaced by backup Ryan Fitzpatrick, who struggled in losses to Kansas City and Seattle. For the season, Locker has completed 94 of 162 passes for 1,047 yards with eight touchdowns, one interception and a 97.1 rating. He has also rushed for 127 yard at a team-best 7.1 yards per try.
“Athletically, he has all the tools,” Fisher said of Locker. “He’s throwing with accuracy. He’s got great vision. His legs, I think, are a significant concern for our defense because he can extend plays.”
The Rams replaced Bradford with eighth-year veteran Kellen Clemens, the only other quarterback on the Rams’ roster or practice squad at the time of the injury. The Rams have since signed Brady Quinn as the backup. In the loss to Seattle in his first start for the Rams, Clemens struggled by completing 15 of 31 passes for 158 yards and a 36.8 rating.
Cut from the same cloth when it comes to offensive philosophy, Fisher and Munchak want their offenses to establish the ground game and implement play-action with the quarterback. And both teams have struggled to run the ball, especially the Titans and lead back Chris Johnson, who has averaged only 27.5 yards the last four games.
“His numbers are down,” Fisher said of Johnson, who he drafted in the first round in 2008 while still head coach of the Titans. “But the skill set is not. It’s still there.
“He’s still got the vision. He’s still got the explosiveness. And he can go the distance at any time.”
Conversely, the Rams might have settled on a lead back to finally replace Steven Jackson, who departed via free agency after being the team’s lead back for nine years. Rookie Zac Stacy, a fifth-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt, rushed for 134 yards against Seattle.
“Obviously, we had strong feelings about Zac in the draft coming out,” Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “His work ethic from Day 1 has been great.”
Ironically, Johnson is only one of 16 Titans remaining on the roster who are holdovers from the Fisher era with the Titans that ended only four seasons ago.
“Coach Fisher, he is the one who drafted me,” said Johnson, who rushed for 2,007 yards in his second NFL season in 2009. “He is a great guy. I love him to death. Anytime getting to face him, it is going to be a very good game.”
Now playing for Fisher in St. Louis are several former Titans, including cornerback Cortland Finnegan, tight end Jared Cook, defensive end William Hayes and linebacker Will Witherspoon. Former Titans coaches under Fisher now on his staff in St. Louis include Dave McGinnis (assistant head coach), Chuck Cecil (secondary), Frank Bush (linebackers) and Ray Sherman (wide receivers). Former Oilers/Titans linebacker Joe Bowden is also a defensive assistant.
Fisher took over as interim head coach for the Oilers/Titans during the 1994 season. He was hired by Titans owner Bud Adams, who died a week ago Monday.
Under Fisher, the team went 147-126 and made the playoffs six times and the AFC Championship Game twice. But the Titans haven’t been to the playoffs since 2008 and not won a playoff game since 2003. The 97 wins during the 2000s made for the winningest decade in franchise history.
“You know, not necessarily,” Fisher said if this game is any different than others this season. “I think it would be different if we were coming there, but we’ve got a short week, and we’ve got to get everybody ready to play.
” … I think there’s 16 guys left on the roster that were there when I was there. They’ve done a great job with the roster. They’re playing well, and this is just about our team and the matchups and trying to find a way to win.”