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Hardy Warner Takes Home a Final Laurel

 Kurt Warner, the Super Bowl's MVP, took his rags-to-riches tale to yet another level.
(Mike Blake - Reuters)
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, Jan. 31, 2000; Page D10

ATLANTA, Jan. 30 – Kurt Warner wrote one more chapter to his storybook season tonight, passing for a Super Bowl-record 414 yards as he led his St. Louis Rams to a 23-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.

It is the first Super Bowl trophy for the Rams, an NFL team with a history of forgettable performances on the field. And for Warner, named the Super Bowl's MVP, it is an achievement almost impossible to fathom, taking his rags-to-riches tale to yet another level.

Warner completed 24 of 45 passes, with two touchdown passes. His 414 yards surpassed Joe Montana's record of 357 yards when the San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals in 1989. His Super Bowl MVP honor represents his latest laurel. During the regular season, in which he led the Rams to a 13-3 record, Warner was named the NFL's MVP and finished as the league's top-rated passer.

Warner's most brilliant moment tonight came when it mattered most. After a rocky start, the Rams had taken a 16-0 third-quarter lead, only to watch the Titans storm back to tie the game at 16 with 2 minutes 16 seconds left.

Rams offensive coordinator Mike Martz decided to gamble on the first play of the next series, calling a play known as "999 halfback balloon." The play required Warner to throw a deep ball to wide receiver Isaac Bruce, who had beaten his defender, cornerback Denard Walker, on a similar pattern earlier. Warner's throw was a bit short, but Bruce compensated, going back to grab it. He cut inside Walker and streaked into the end zone for the 73-yard, game-winning score.

"Isaac's our go-to guy," Warner said. "We knew he was the one we had to go to."

But Tennessee wasn't quite done.

With 1:54 left on the clock, Titans quarterback Steve McNair drove his team downfield to the St. Louis 10. With six seconds left on the clock, he fired a nine-yard pass to Kevin Dyson, who made a frantic effort to stretch the final yard. But St. Louis linebacker Mike Jones stopped him to preserve the championship for his team.

"I knew I was on about the 3 or the 2," Jones said afterward. "I knew I was on top of him. All I had to do was get him down and I did. I knew when I tackled him, he wasn't close enough to get his arm in."

Asked if it was his best tackle ever, Jones said: "It won the Super Bowl, so it has to be."

But it was Warner's fourth-quarter heroics that likely will be remembered longest.

Warner's rise from obscurity has been well-documented in the weeks leading to Super Bowl XXXIV. Stocking grocery shelves just five years ago, Warner wasn't drafted by the NFL and honed his game in the fledgling Arena Football League, playing three seasons for the Iowa Barnstormers, then with the Amsterdam Admirals of the NFL's developmental league, NFL Europe. He won the Rams quarterback job only because starting quarterback Trent Green suffered a devastating knee injury during the preseason. Coach Dick Vermeil was criticized at the time for not having a proven backup in the wings.

But tonight, Warner capped his impressive season with the greatest passing performance in Super Bowl history, leaving his teammates, coaches and fellow quarterbacks around the NFL in awe.

"I don't even know what to say," said San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young. "It is unbelievable how he finished the Super Bowl."

Warner was jittery early, missing on three of his first four throws. His first pass was tipped by rookie defensive end Jevon Kearse. The Rams' first drive was equally futile, as a field-goal attempt was aborted after holder Mike Horan fumbled the snap.

In time, Warner seemed to find his rhythm in the face of relentless pressure from the Titans' defensive line. But while the Rams moved the ball with ease, Warner was ineffective inside the 20. He completed 19 of 35 throws in the first half, but was 0 for 11 in the red zone during that period.

The Rams rolled up more than three times the offense generated by the Titans (294 to 89 yards) in the first half, but their only scores came from place kicker Jeff Wilkins, who hit from 27, 29 and 28 yards to give his team a 9-0 halftime lead.

Warner's first touchdown pass was a nine-yard strike to rookie Torry Holt that padded the Rams' lead to 16-0.

Tennessee countered with a vengeance, putting the ball in running back Eddie George's hands. George plowed into the end zone twice, for touchdowns of 1 and 2 yards.

With the score tied at 16, Martz called for the deep ball to Bruce.

"It was a great throw and a great catch," said Titans Coach Jeff Fisher. "I credit Kurt Warner on a big play, or it's a different ballgame. . . . Kurt took a pounding. He was hit and hit and hit, and kept pounding. He made the plays to win the game."

Said Warner: "I always believed in myself."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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