EDITOR’S NOTE: No national publication has a richer sports history than that of The Sporting News, which was founded in 1886. The following content appeared in the July 3, 2000 issue of The Sporting News magazine.
On the last play of Super Bowl 34 in Atlanta, Rams linebacker Mike Jones stopped Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson short of the goal line on the last play of the game, sealing a 23-16 victory for St. Louis. The play that has become known as “The Tackle” is among the most famous in Super Bowl history. Months after the game, Dyson agreed to let Sporting News fly him to St. Louis for a sit-down with Jones to watch and discuss the play.
Original publish date: July 3, 2000
They Meet Again
By Dennis Dillon
Shhhh. Come on in and have a seat. Sorry the light is dim, but your eyes will adjust.
See these two guys sitting in the front row? The one on the (right), his hair in braids, is Kevin Dyson, the wide receiver for the Tennessee Titans. The other one, with the freshly shaved head, is Mike Jones, the St. Louis Rams’ linebacker. That’s right, the two players who gave us the most fantastic finish in Super Bowl history.
They’re here, in this meeting room at Rams Park, to dissect and discuss the tie that will forever bind them — the final play in Super Bowl 34. A Play so momentous in its consequence, yet so fundamental in its execution that it is known by a simple appellation. The Tackle.
That’s it frozen on the projection screen. Remember the situation? Rams leading, 23-16 … Titans’ ball … first down at the Rams’ 10-yard line … six seconds left … no timeouts.
It’s mid-May, 3 1/2 months since the Super Bowl, but this will be only the second time Dyson has watched the play. The first time was the day after the game, when the Titans returned to Nashville from Atlanta. Dyson secluded himself inside the office of receivers coach Steve Walters and looked for what — if anything — he could have done differently. He has a TV videotape of the Super Bowl, but the last six seconds might as well be blank. He simply has been unable to bring himself to watch them. When the Titans premiered their 1999 highlight film at their training facility and the final play of the game appeared on the screen, Dyson couldn’t bear to look. Sitting there in the dark, on the aisle leading up to the second tier of seats in the room, he lowered his head.
But Dyson agreed to let Sporting News fly him to St. Louis to sit down with Jones and examine the play. “I wanted to hear what he had to say about it,” Dyson says. “If it was just me. I probably wouldn’t have really wanted to watch it.”
It seems as if everyone has wanted to watch the play with Jones. In the week after the Super Bowl, he went on a whirlwind trip to New York where he appeared on Regis & Kathie Lee (“They weren’t very personable”), Charlie Rose (“He’s a great interviewer”) and HBO’s Inside the NFL. One of Jones’ fondest moments was when the University of Missouri, his alma mater, saluted him during its final home basketball game March 1. He was invited to walk to center court and wave to the crowd, which gave him an ovation befitting a Super Bowl hero.
“That was sweet. I was able to get the monkey off my back,” says Jones, a team captain in 1990, when the Tigers lost to Colorado in the infamous “Fifth Down” game.
The Super Bowl has bereft of suspense all too often, but Jones and Dyson collaborated to produce the ultimate climax January 30 in the Georgia Dome. Now they have convened to replay it — again and again and again. Six seconds of action. Sixty minutes of scrutiny. Let’s go to the tape.
Tennessee, you’ll recall, had the ball for 13 minutes, 14 seconds in the fourth quarter and ran 32 plays to St. Louis’ 6 in that period. The Rams’ defense was exhausted. End Kevin Carter and tackle D’Marco Farr took themselves out of the game for one play with 28 seconds left, causing coach Dick Vermeil to clutch his head incredulously. When Dyson looked over to the Rams’ sideline and saw someone pouring water on Carter, he smiled to himself.
Dyson, who had only one reception for 9 yards in the game’s first 58 minutes, caught three passes for 32 yards on the Titans’ game-ending possession. On the next-to-last play, quarterback Steve McNair scrambled, incredibly escaped a sack attempt by Carter and Jay Williams — who dived at his feet simultaneously — and completed a 16-yard pass to Dyson. Rams cornerback Dexter McCleon stopped Dyson at the 10 and tried to hold him up, but Dyson smartly went down, and the Titans called their last timeout.
As McNair came to the sideline, coach Jeff Fisher conferred with offensive coordinator Les Steckel, who was up in the coaches’ booth. The Titans were in their “gotta win” series of plays, and Steckel called a mouthful: “Gun spear right open zag firm silver right Detroit.” In simple terms, it was a shotgun formation with two receivers to each side. Dyson and tight end Frank Wycheck were to line up on the right side. “Open” meant that Wycheck would be split out, away from the right tackle; Dyson was to line up outside of Wycheck and slightly behind the line. “Silver” called for Dyson to run a slant pattern and Wycheck to run a vertical route.
The Rams went with a nickel defense and brought in a fresh pair of legs at right end. They replaced Grant Wistrom with linebacker Leonard Little, hoping to get a speed rush on McNair’s blindside. Jones, McCleon and safety Billy Jenkins positioned themselves on the Wycheck-Dyson side in a triangular alignment, each man representing a corner. Jones lined up at the 7, inside of Wycheck; McCleon straddled the 5 on the outside of Dysonl and Jenkins stood behind them at the 2.
“In the huddle, I don’t think anybody had any doubt in their mind that we were going to score,” Dyson says. “We had been doing that all year long — getting in close games and pulling them out.”
Jones presses the play button on the remote switch and the play comes to life on screen. Dyson starts in motion, taking five steps toward the inside. Now he stops, pivots and comes back outside to his original spot. The Titans put Dyson in motion to keep him from getting jammed at the line and camouflage where he was going. As the ball is snapped, Wycheck runs straight up the seam toward the end zone. Jones turns to his left and drops back with him.
“I’m looking at you right now,” Dyson says to Jones. “As soon as I saw you turn your hips and take Wycheck, that’s when I came. I thought you were following Wycheck and I could creep in there.”
“Right,” says Jones. “I didn’t think you saw me down there. I slid back with Wycheck because I didn’t want him coming behind me, but I still had my vision on you. You might not think I’m looking at you, but I’m looking at you the whole time.”
But this is much more complex than a game of peekaboo. Go back to the start of the play. One of the key components for the Rams is the pre-snap communication among Jenkins, Jones and McCleon.
Jenkins initially calls out “Trio!” — a 3-on-2 coverage, which means Jones is responsible for the first receiver, Wycheck or Dyson, who breaks inside; McCleon is to take the first receiver who breaks outside, and Jenkins will back them up. When Jones turns his head to the left to relay the Trio call back to Jenkins, Dyson goes in motion inside. Jenkins moves across the field with Dyson yelling, “Connie!” Now the coverage has been changed. Jenkins and Jones will double-team Dyson — Jenkins taking the inside, Jones the outside — and McCleon will go one-on-one with Wycheck. Jones turns and looks over his right shoulder to give that call back to Jenkins. Just when he does that, Dyson reverses his field and goes back outside.
“If you guys had snapped the ball right there, we’re in big trouble,” Jones says. “We were kind of in a Catch-22 here.” But as Dyson returns to his original spot, Jenkins yells, “Trio!” again. Three coverage calls and the ball hasn’t even been snapped.
As Wycheck goes upfield, Dyson moves into the area vacated by the tight end, swinging just slightly to the outside. At the 7, he slants inside. He doesn’t make a sharp cut; the break is more like a crescent pattern. This catches Dyson’s attention as he watches the film.
“Looking at this again, if I had come flatter, I might have been able to outrun you to the end zone,” he tells Jones. “Nobody else is going to make this play but you. So maybe if I had come flat more around the 5-yard line and tried to outrun you … .”
As he breaks inside at the 7, Dyson turns his head back and looks for McNair’s pass. He snares it just as he crosses the 5. “It was a perfect ball — in the stomach, low, in front of me,” Dyson says.
Just as Dyson cuts inside, McCleon points animatedly toward him with his left arm. He is yelling, “In! In! In!” to Jones who already knows the pass is coming to Dyson. He drops off Wycheck.
“I could see your eyes getting bigger,” Jones tells Dyson. “You can tell when a receiver is about to get a ball. They’ve got to look back, turn their head, then they’ve got to get their hands ready to catch the ball.”
Unless he is taking a receiver one-on-one, Jones says, he is supposed to stay out of the end zone in coverage. The goal line is his boundary line. Jones follows Wycheck to the 3, then passes him off to Jenkins, who is in the end zone.
“If Wycheck had taken me just a little bit wider, then you and I would have had a footrace,” Jones says. “Because you would have had more space to run, and I would have had more space to cover.”
When Jones sees Dyson look back for the ball, he stops, turns his hips back inside and gives chase. No other Rams player is in position to stop Dyson from getting to the end zone. All that hangs in the balance is the outcome of the Super Bowl.
Pause the tape for a moment. Let’s find out more about Dyson and Jones, and how they reached this crucial football intersection.
Dyson, 25, a record-setting receiver at the University of Utah, was the 16th player selected in the 1998 draft — the only receiver taken ahead of Randy Moss. The Titans, like many of their NFL brethren, believed Moss’ off-field problems made him too much of a risk. They liked the 6-1 Dyson’s size/speed combination; their 40-yard dash time on Dyson (4.39) was actually two-hundredths of a second faster than what they had on Moss.
After a mediocre rookie season in which he caught 21 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns, Dyson was the Titans’ second-leading receiver (behind Wycheck) last season, with 54 receptions for 658 yards and four TDs.
But it was as a special teams fill-in that he reached an apotheosis for the franchise formerly known as the Houston Oilers. Dyson wasn’t even supposed to be on the field when the Titans’ kick-return team lined up with only 16 seconds left and Tennessee trailing Buffalo, 16-15, in a wild-card playoff game last January 8. But two other members of the return team were injured, so Dyson was drafted. Lorenzo Neal fielded the kick and pitched the ball back to Wycheck, who threw a cross-field lateral (it was dangerously close to an illegal forward pass) to Dyson. The Titans call the play “Home Run Throwback.” Seventy-five yards later, Dyson was in the end zone, his touchdown forever to be known as the “Music City Miracle.”
“It was probably the greatest thing in my sports life,” Dyson says. Just 22 days later, he would experience the nadir.
But Dyson has been classy in the wake of the final Super Bowl play. He even has been gracious enough to autograph pictures that show him lying on the field, the ball in his outstretched arm short of the goal line. Before training camp, he will fly to Mount Laurel, N.J., to film a segment for NFL Films. It will be a spoof on the HBO series, The Sopranos , in which Dyson will seek a doctor’s help.
“I go to see a psychiatrist because of this play. I can’t reach the pepper. I can’t reach my alarm clock. … I probably need to see one for real,” he says, laughing. “No, I’m just kidding. I’m fine. I really am fine.”
Jones made an inconspicuous entrance into the NFL. He was not among the 334 players drafted in 1991, when the selection process was 12 rounds. He played running back and fullback at Missouri, and his agent wanted him to sign a free-agent contract with the Broncos. But the Raiders signed him and switched him to linebacker at the urging of Mike Ward, who had been Jones’ running backs coach at Missouri. When the Raiders sent out an evaluation form during Jones’ senior season, Ward filled it out — with a 1 1/2 page, hand-written letter to Raiders owner Al Davis as an addendum. Ward was convinced that Jones could play linebacker in the NFL. In fact, Ward and defensive coordinator Mike Curch had lobbied to switch Jones to linebacker at Missouri, but head coach Bob Stull squelched the idea.
“I knew he wasn’t going to get drafted as a running back in the NFL,” Ward recalls. “His speed was 4.6 to 4.7. He ran a little bit upright, a little vertical for a running back, and that’s not good. He had average size. He didn’t fit the mold of what they were looking for at fullback. What convinced me that he would be a linebacker in the NFL, and even in college, was his ability to open up his hips and run. A lot of guys are stiff; this guy was smooth and fluid. And the way he could accelerate in and out of breaks … in other words stop and go, And, then, cerebrally speaking, he was incredible. I knew he could read formations. I knew he could read tendencies.”
Jones gradually ascended from special teams player to nickel linebacker to starter with the Raiders. He became a free agent after the ’96 season, but some of the Rams’ coaches were reluctant to bring him to St. Louis because they needed a strongside linebacker who could cover the tight end and rush the passer. Jones had performed neither role with the Raiders.
Through dedication on the practice field, in film study and in the weight room, Jones, 31, developed into the player the Rams needed. He became an iron man who was irreplaceable. He played in 1,045 of 1,047 defensive snaps in ’97 and all 1,004 plays in ’98. Last season, he intercepted four passes (returning two for touchdowns), recovered two fumbles (one of which he turned into a TD), made one sack, defensed 13 passes, produced 11 quarterback pressures and was third on the team in tackles. For the third consecutive year, he was voted by his teammates as winner of the Carl Ekern Spirit of the Game Award, named for a former Rams linebacker and given to the player who best exemplifies sportsmanship, work ethic and commitment to his teammates.
“Mike is someone everyone should pattern their career around,” says Rams free safety Keith Lyle. “He works hard, he studies. He does all the necessary things to prepare himself for Sunday.”
Jones, Carter and cornerback Todd Lyght usually play on the left side of the Ram’s defense and they always have a rallying cry. During the Super Bowl they decided the one of them had to make the big play of the game. In the second quarter, Carter sacked McNair for a 6-yard loss. Early in the third quarter, Lyght blocked a field-goal attempt. Standing on the sideline before the final series of the game, Jones jokingly told Carter that it was his turn to make a play of magnitude.
Like the other Rams defensive players, Jones was tired. And his ankle “was killing me.” A Titans lineman had accidentally stepped on Jones’ ankle midway through the fourth quarter. But Jones never left the field. And now came the final, pivotal moment.
As Dyson catches McNair’s pass, about 3 yards separate him and Jones, who closes the gap quickly. Dyson doesn’t even take two full strides before Jones lunges at him. Stretched out almost horizontally, his right foot off the ground, Jones reaches out with his right arm and grabs Dyson’s right leg just below the hip.
“When I reached out and grabbed you,” Jones says, “you’re going one way and I’m going another. I knew I got a good wrap on you initially with my right arm. I try to bring my left arm around and your momentum swings me all the way around.”
In physical terms, it is much like a centripetal force, the force tending to pull a rotating object toward the center of rotation. Dr. Ian Redmount, a physicist at St. Louis University who watched the Super Bowl and remembers the play, estimates it required the 202-pound Dyson to exert a force of nearly 300 pounds to swing the 240-pound Jones.
When he is swung around, Jones clamps his left hand on Dyson’s left leg, just above the knee. It might just as well be a steel trap. Dyson’s leg his snared, his forward progress stopped. As if that isn’t enough, Jones falls on the back of the leg.
“When you first hit me, I thought I could run through the arm,” Dyson says. “I’m thinking, ‘If I can get through this … ‘ Then all of a sudden my feet stopped.”
“You’re in if you can get that left leg up because you’re going to fall forward,” Jones says.
“That’s what I needed — one more step,” Dyson says. “I couldn’t get that left leg moving.”
“When I tackled you, I knew you were already down because I had my hand on your leg,” Jones says. “I was at about the 3-yard line and I knew you weren’t 7 feet tall.”
Dyson chuckles at this remark.
As Dyson goes down, he rolls over on his left side and, while lying on his back, tries to stretch the ball across the goal line with his right arm. Too short. Lyle comes over from the other side of the filed and tries to knock the ball out of Dyson’s hand, but Dyson pulls it back. Dyson rolls over on his stomach, switches the ball to his left hand and stretches it across the goal line. Too late. His knee already has touched the ground.
For a moment, there is an eerie silence on the field as players and coaches from both teams wait for a signal. Field judge Al Jury comes running in from the right side and points to the ground, indicating the ball was short of the goal line when Dyson’s knee went down.
The only thing Dyson can do is hope for a miracle. A penalty flag? A review of the play? A malfunction in the clock? In the last scene of the videotape, Dyson, still on his stomach, looks up at the clock. He watches it go from 0:01 to 0:00.
“I get up and I don’t know where you went,” Jones says to Dyson. “I got hugged by tackle Jeff Zgonina and the next thing I knew there’s all this confetti coming down and all these people rushing on the field to get those platforms up for the trophy presentation. It was crazy.”
“After the game, somebody said it was a perfect tackle,” Dyson says. “I said on a perfect tackle, you would have squared up and hit me so hard.”
“It’s funny,” Jones says, “because the angle I make the tackle at … if I try to run through you, you’d probably ricochet off me.”
“The middle of the field was so open,” Dyson says. “If you weren’t there, I would have walked into the end zone … Even when I was going down, it seemed like that end zone was so close.”
“It was,” says Jones, laughing. Dyson laughs too. But with a bit less gusto.