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Nashville Scene Here's to the Losers

Titans were worthy of the Super Bowl

By Randy Horick

FEBRUARY 7, 2000:  With 10 seconds to go in the Super Bowl, the lead for this story was furiously writing itself in my head. It was going something like this:

"Anyone who doubted the power of destiny's pull on the Tennessee Titans at the Super Bowl must have left at halftime. They obviously weren't around at the end.

"Otherwise, they would have witnessed a three-scores-in-the-last-two-minutes conclusion so preposterously improbable that it could only have been staged by two upstart naive newcomers. More established presences, like Dallas or Green Bay, would never have expected the audience to swallow such an unbelievable tale."

The story would have described how, with the ball at the 10 and six seconds remaining--time for just one sure play--Steve McNair took the snap, scrambled to escape what seemed like a swarming hornet's nest of St. Louis tacklers, then coolly rifled a touchdown pass to a receiver who had sneaked unnoticed into an undefended bit of end zone.

Another paragraph would relate how coach Jeff Fisher, with the clock reading 0:00, eschewed an extra point that would have forced an overtime in favor of the nerviest call ever made in a Super Bowl: a two-point conversion try. In my mind's eye, I saw McNair rolling out left, faking a throw, then sprinting into the corner of the end zone to give Tennessee a 24-23 win--the most jaw-dropping win in the entire XXXIV-year history of the big game.

By the time McNair took his last snap, the whole crowd was beginning to believe that the "Music City Miracle" might not be just a kick return but an ongoing phenomenon.

Had the touchdown-conversion scenario unfolded, who knows what other wonders we might have witnessed? An earthquake might have shaken the Georgia Dome, its canopied roof might have ripped apart and angels might have flown in to proclaim a new millennial era. Faith Hill might have been struck with an ability to lip-synch the National Anthem. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue might have smiled.

Of course, you know how things turned out.

Part of the lead I was imagining remained valid. The finish was among the most electrifying ever on Super Sunday. It was a game, paradoxically, both worthy of the Super Bowl and completely defiant of its unspontaneous spirit.

As I discovered on Sunday, the Super Bowl is more than a meeting of two teams. It's also something of a festival for all of professional football.

Loyalists of franchises other than the participants are evident everywhere, sporting their colors; it's as if they decided to come anyway when their squad didn't make it. One Ÿberfan from Minnesota sported not only a Vikings jersey but a spiky golden mohawk with purple highlights. A Dolphin fan in deep denial wore his Miami cap and replica jersey with Dan Marino's number. Bucs fans adorned their team's jerseys in apparent defiance of the Rams, who had barely withstood Tampa's punishing defense the week before.

The Rams and Titans certainly played a game that was worthy of the party. It was intense, particularly after Blaine Bishop, the soul of the Titans' defense, left with a neck injury in the third quarter. Both teams refused to give in--an attitude perhaps best exemplified by McNair, who at times seemed impossible even to tackle, much less defeat.

At the same time, the Super Bowl is a cubic zirconium, as flashy yet faux as the live performances by celebrity singers. In Atlanta, the turf was phony, and the halftime show was literally a burst of hot air.

At most Super Bowls, the fans are largely fake, too--a preponderance of perked-out-the-yingyang corporate junketeers who couldn't care less which teams are playing. Among the most surreal in our section of the stands was a frumpy fellow who slept through much of the game but yelled "Down in front!" during the halftime extravaganza. Then there was the bespectacled little pip representing an e-shopping company that apparently was too poor to buy its own TV ad. Instead, the company outfitted him in a puky green superhero suit with tights and a cape and instructed him to run up and down the aisles during timeouts.

Even the game often resembles a coronation more than a competition. But if that was the script on Sunday, the Rams and Titans trashed it after halftime. And the fans seemed louder and more passionate than perhaps at any of the 33 previous Super Bowls.

As they had throughout the playoffs, Titan fans found their way into the stadium by the thousands. (Many others who arrived hopeful but ticketless set up their own parties in the nearby CNN Center.)

For once, the two teams' partisans thoroughly overshadowed the disinterested corporate crowd. They stood the old Super Bowl tradition on its head. This wasn't an event; it was a game. The outcome mattered to the audience. (Memo to the Commish: Set aside 20,000 more tickets for actual fans next time, and send the corporate boys to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl.)

In the end, the Rams proved to be destiny's team. They pulled off the two critical plays: Mike Jones' sure tackle of Kevin Dyson and Kurt Warner's 73-yard bomb to Isaac Bruce. They deserved to win, and Warner, the former grocery sacker and Arena Leaguer, merited his MVP award.

That's not to say that the Titans deserved to lose, or that McNair was any less magnificent than Warner. It's not difficult to imagine that the two teams yet might be scratching it out, just one score apart from each other, were it not for the artificial limitation of the clock.

Destiny may have stood on the side of both teams but, when forced to choose only one, flipped a coin that came up St. Louis' way. As Americans, though, we are conditioned to believe that glory cannot be shared. The winner's podium is big enough only for one.

Tuesday's ticker-tape parade and the huge swell of local pride showed that, to Nashvillians, the Titans came home as winners. Their furious, gritty rally, led by Eddie George and McNair, apparently even earned the respect of football watchers around the country.

But by the cruel, ridiculous standard that our country follows, the Titans will now be lumped with Buffalo and Minnesota, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and San Diego--all Super Bowl losers.

If history is any guide, football fans and Media Geniuses will soon forget the Titans' resolute performance. Except in Nashville (and Jacksonville and Indianapolis), they'll likely forget the team's road playoff wins that brought them to Atlanta.

They've long since forgotten how extraordinarily difficult it was for the Bills and Vikings to achieve four Super Bowl berths. Just ask Tampa Bay and Cleveland--similarly tarred with the loser's brush--who more than once have fallen one game short of making the Big One. Or ask the gifted Marino, who must have thought Super Bowls would become routine after he made the trip in his rookie season. He has never been back.

After Sunday's game, the Network Commentator Geniuses eased into their rote what-do-we-have-for-our-departing-guests spiel--"The Titans are a strong team, and they'll have to work even harder to get back here next year"--as if a few extra gassers after every practice would ensure a title. As this year's injury-depleted Jets and Falcons will attest, every champion receives a boost somewhere from dumb luck.

This year, as in few others, both Super Bowl entrants played with amazing determination.

It is altogether fitting, after the Rams' lustrous performance, to echo the Sinatra song played over the Georgia Dome's speakers: "Here's to the winners."

But after what we saw on the field, there should be a second verse:

"Here, also, is to the losers."

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