As Dick Vermeil was finishing up his postgame remarks to the media today, San Francisco 49ers President Bill Walsh walked into the room to offer congratulations. The two longtime friends embraced for a few seconds, and Walsh looked him in the eye and said, "I think you're going all the way, baby. Wonderful, wonderful victory."
It was that kind of day for the St. Louis Rams and their emotional coach, who walked off the Trans World Dome field late this afternoon arm-in-arm with team owner Georgia Frontiere. She was blowing kisses to a capacity crowd that had nearly rocked the roof off the building celebrating a 42-20 Rams victory over the defending NFC West champions for what is now the NFL's only undefeated team.
Walsh was not just making gratuitous comments to his friend Vermeil over what clearly looks like a significant changing of the guard in a division dominated by the 49ers for most of the last two decades. And with Rams quarterback Kurt Warner playing like the second coming of Joe Montana, anything suddenly seems possible for the explosive 4-0 Rams.
Warner staked his team to a 21-3 first-quarter lead with three touchdown passes to wide receiver Isaac Bruce. When the final gun sounded in the biggest pro football game in these parts since the Don Coryell Cardinals days of the mid-1970s, Warner had thrown five touchdown passes, including a fourth to Bruce early in the final period.
With all that offensive firepower, a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by second-year wide receiver Tony Horne to provide a 15-point third-quarter cushion and a defense that intercepted three passes, the Rams ended a 17-game losing streak to the 49ers that dated from 1990, when not a single member of the current team was on the roster. It was the Rams' first home victory against San Francisco since 1986, and the first time the team has won twice in October since 1989.
"To win as convincingly as we did, I did not expect, but I'll take it," Vermeil said after his players awarded him and Frontiere game balls in an emotional ceremony after the game. "What we've done is finally caught up with the best team in our division. But we've still got 12 to play and the only critical thing is how we play next week."
The Rams did catch the 49ers without their leader, quarterback Steve Young, who sat out a second straight game since suffering a concussion two weeks ago. His replacement, Jeff Garcia, was pummeled all day by a fierce and occasionally blitzing pass rush.
But the most pained 49er had to be cornerback Darnell Walker, who was burned all day by Warner and Bruce. Walker did not play last week because of a sore hamstring, and some might say he didn't play much today as Bruce beat him for his first two scoring catches of 13 and five yards and his fourth, a 42-yarder, when he simply blew past him down the right sideline.
Walker said he took "full responsibility" for his dreadful play and blown coverages and, in the understatement of the season, added, "I feel like we have to get better at some things."
Warner, 28, honed his skills playing arena football and in the NFL's World League, taking over as the Rams' starter before his team's final preseason game. He replaced Trent Green, the former Redskin, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Chargers on Aug. 28. Warner has made the most of his opportunity.
He's thrown 14 touchdown passes in his first four career starts, surpassing the first-year starter record of 12 set by Mark Rypien with the Washington Redskins in 1988. Today, Warner completed his first eight passes, was 14 of 16 by halftime and finished 20 of 23 for 323 yards with one interception. He came into the game with a league-leading 125.0 quarterback rating, had a 140.2 rating for the game and is now at an eye-popping 136.0.
"I feel better and better every week," Warner said. "The more I play, the more confident I get, and if you can't get excited about a game like this, you're in the wrong business. The thing that's so special is that we have so many guys who can make plays every week. I'm just having so much fun."
So is Vermeil, who came into the year knowing his job was on the line.
"I don't know if anyone ever has gotten off to such an amazing start," Vermeil said of Warner. "He's got tremendous poise and great skill people who can go get the football. . . . The quarterback is playing way beyond expectations. I expected him to play well enough for us to win. I thought by the middle of the season he could step up and win some games for us.
"You know what he said to me walking off the field? He said, 'Coach, you haven't seen the best of me yet.' He's a special guy. And you know something, Trent Green would have done the same thing."
Vermeil also showed himself to be in a special class today. With 53 seconds left in the game, the Rams had the ball at the 49ers 1-yard line. Despite those 17 straight losses, four of them under Vermeil, the coach had second-team quarterback Paul Justin take a knee and allow the clock to expire rather than pile on the points.
"I think [49ers Coach] Steve Mariucci would have done the same," Vermeil said. "I always tell my players the cheapest thing to show is class. We had the game won. We have to play them again. I just know it's great to be 4-0. . . . I've said it all along. I said we were a good football team. Right now, we're a very good football team."