TAMPA, Fla. — The greatest comeback in Rams' history began amid disaster Sunday night, and ended with Coach Chuck Knox practically dancing into the arms of Jim Everett, the quarterback he benched a week ago.
It was a game that threatened to gobble up any sense of pride the Rams had built through a season of tough competition, but ended with them roaring out of a 24-point halftime hole to claim an improbable 31-27 victory--the third-biggest comeback in NFL history--in front of a stunned Tampa Stadium crowd of 38,387.
It was a game that came on the heels of last week's 14-point loss to the Minnesota Vikings, and ended with Everett, who was removed from that game in the third quarter, wondering about the dazzling turn of fate.
It was a game of high drama and low comedy, an amazing 21-point Ram third quarter, three second-half takeaways by the revived defense and bizarre blunders by both teams.
"I think it says something about the character (of the team)," Knox said, "(that) they stayed in there, made some plays. There wasn't any quit in them."
Said tight end Jim Price, one of 10 Ram receivers who caught passes Sunday night: "You know, I felt at halftime, even though we were down 27-3, the way they were playing defense--just kind of playing back, didn't want to get beat deep . . . I was telling guys at halftime, I knew we could get some things going, we could score some touchdowns.
"All we needed was an interception or something."
Everett, who threw for 342 yards and completed three second-half touchdowns, handled his buffeting emotions with wryness and merry mystification.
"Maybe," Everett said, grinning, "it'll change Chuck's mind about taking me out too early (like last week).
"Week in, week out, it's crazy. It's like a rollercoaster, whatever . . . Like someone said today, you've just got to keep the fire burning."
The Rams' fire was all but extinguished in a horrendous second quarter, when the Buccaneers (4-9) took only 13 seconds to turn two Ram errors--one bizarre tackling miscue and one kickoff fumble return--into two touchdowns, transforming a 6-0 lead into a 20-0 advantage.
Less than a minute into the quarter, taking over at the Buccaneer 19, Vinny Testaverde dropped back deep, and fired a strike to tight end T.J. Armstrong, who was about 20 yards downfield, in stride. Armstrong absorbed simultaneous hits from safeties Pat Terrell and Anthony Newman, then rumbled 55 yards more for an 81-yard score.
Then, on the ensuing kickoff, Ram return man David Lang fumbled the ball straight into the hands of Roger Jones, who had a clear path to the end zone, scoring from 26 yards.
By halftime, after another Buccaneer touchdown and a Ram field goal, it was 27-3, and the vultures were circling on the Rams' 1992 season. This was, after all, the team that lost its final 10 games of last year and hadn't won a December game since 1989.
"I can't say we would've given up last year, but I don't think we would've had the same enthusiasm," said Price. "We didn't believe in ourselves last year."
But the Rams (5-8) went into halftime angry, not anguished.
And before two minutes had elapsed in the second half, Everett sent a 40-yard touchdown pass to Flipper Anderson.
After the Anderson score, the Rams got their break two plays into the ensuing possession by the Buccaneers--fullback Anthony McDowell fumbled after a Larry Kelm hit and the ball was recovered by Kevin Greene at the Tampa Bay 41.
Suddenly, a Ram defense that had been in shock and been beaten by two first-half Testaverde touchdown passes and 124 rushing yards in the first two quarters, was awake, too.
They said they saw it as a test of their character.
"Definitely. It was to see what's there," said rookie defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, who had two sacks, both in the second half. "It was pride."
Three plays after the fumble, Everett connected with Jeff Chadwick, who fell into the left corner of the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown. And, with but four minutes 40 seconds gone in the third quarter, the score was 27-17.
Three plays later, linebacker Roman Phifer dropped deep enough to tip a Testaverde pass over the middle to cornerback Todd Lyght, who took the interception down the right sideline 39 yards to the Tampa 12.
"Nobody quit," Lyght said. "It was up to us on defense to make something happen, and show we've got some pride in ourselves, show everybody watching on TV that we've got character."
Sixty-four seconds later, running back Lang shaved Tampa Bay's lead to three points with a one-yard touchdown run--meaning the Rams had scored 21 points in only 7:41.
It was the Rams' biggest single-quarter scoring output since Dec. 17, 1989, a span of 45 games.
"It was a quick strike and that's what we talked about, we needed to come down, get a quick strike, get this thing back, try to get a touchdown on the board, prove that we could compete," Everett said.
"As far as how quick we put 21 points on the board, I don't think I've ever been associated (with a team that did it) that quickly.