Originally created 01/18/00

NFL 'final four' showcases state of league



A free 30 seconds of Super Bowl advertising to the person who predicted in August that Jacksonville, St. Louis, Tennessee and Tampa Bay would be the final combatants standing in football's five-month battle royal.

It's kind of like tabbing Gomer Pyle as television's best actor or Camryn Manheim as Sports Illustrated's swimsuit cover girl or a wrestler as governor. You just can't bring yourself to believe the scenarios.

Now we're left to ponder the possibility of interesting combinations for the Jan. 30 game in Atlanta.

We could have the Stolen Franchise Super Bowl, pitting the relocated Rams and the travelin' Titans, who are playing in their fourth stadium in four seasons.

We could have the all-Florida Super Bowl, with the Buccaneers, expansion Class of 1977, against the Jaguars, expansion Class of 1995. Bug spray, INS meetings and walkers available to all those with tickets to the Georgia Dome.

We could have St. Louis, a city of riverboats on the banks of the Mississippi, against Jacksonville, a city of cargo ships on the banks of the St. Johns in what would have been a nice USFL or WLAF matchup.

We could have Nashville and Tampa playing in Atlanta in the NFL's first Suncoast Super Bowl. This, by the way, would be an NHL game that ESPN2 would showcase only after midnight.

The NFL's final four competing to win the first Super Bowl of the 2000s are symbolic of where the league is as it enters the new millennium.

All four teams have built state-of-the-art stadiums over the past five years, each complete with an abundance of luxury suites and personal seat licenses to aid in attracting high-dollar free agents. Though the pewter Pirates may have to capture the Vince Lombardi Trophy before I ride the media elevator at Raymond James Stadium again.

All four teams are in television markets not necessarily considered hot properties by Madison Avenue -- Tampa/St. Petersburg/Sarasota 13th, St. Louis 21st, Nashville 30th, Jacksonville/Brunswick, Ga. 52nd. This shows how effective the NFL's revenue sharing and strict salary caps are in creating parity and balance.

Consider the eight teams to advance to the baseball postseason. The smallest television market was Phoenix, ranked 17th. While it helps to be an NFL money player, it's not the ultimate prerequisite for success.

All four have had games won this season by backup quarterbacks, proving that depth and scouting at sport's most critical position is most essential.

All four quarterbacks to start next Sunday have taken circuitous routes to stardom, whether it's Kurt Warner and his Arena League/grocery stock clerk midnight shifts, or a fifth-rounder in Mark Brunell, a third-rounder in Shaun King or a I-AA stud in Steve McNair forced to sit two years while backing up Chris Chandler in Houston.

And banking on the Falcons' and Jets' renaissance of a season ago, all four have proven that football rebirth need not take decades or generations to complete. Except if you're a New Orleans Saints fan.

In 1994, the Jaguars were merely a blueprint, while the Oilers, Rams and Bucs were merely black and blue, winners of 12 and losers of 36 combined.

Tampa Bay lost 106 times in the '80s. The Rams, be it in the city of angels or under the arch, lost 101 games in the '90s.

While the Titans/Oilers last won a playoff game in 1991, the franchise did lose consecutive AFC title games in '78-'79, so it's not as moribund as the other two.

What these four finalists should tell us is that as we get prepared for the 2000-01 season, history may not be football's best precursor.

Reach Rick Dorsey at (706) 823-3219 or rdorsey@augustachronicle.com.