It happened in the third preseason game. The Rams’ starting quarterback, having a terrific camp and preseason, crumpled to the ground in agony, the ACL in his left knee shredded. The third-year head coach, already dealing with a frustrated fan base and a formidable division, tells the media the next day how devastated the QB is, but that “we will rally around…”
“Kurt Warner, and we will play good football.” – Dick Vermeil, Rams head coach, Aug. 30, 1999
“Shaun Hill, and we will go play.” – Jeff Fisher, Rams head coach, Aug. 24, 2014
The similarities in the injuries to Trent Green in 1999 and Sam Bradford on Saturday night are eerie. And the devastating reaction of the coaches and many fans is similar. Bradford was off and running this preseason, and the hope was that a healthy year would allow him to realize his potential, now that he was surrounded with quality talent. Longtime fans will remember that Green had gone 28 of 32 for 406 yards, two touchdowns and one interception when given Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Marshall Faulk and what would become the Greatest Show on Turf.
I found both instances to be heartbreaking. The initial injury was like a kick in the gut. To this day, I’ve never been in a big place as quiet as the Edward Jones Dome was on Aug. 29, 1999. Then and on Saturday night, I felt sick to my stomach – and held out hope until official word came that the injured guy wouldn’t miss the entire season. We didn’t know Warner at the time, but we know what he did now. Kurt was an unknown, but had been to championship games in the Arena League and had been the leading passer in NFL Europe, so it was clear he had some skills. Nobody knew what was going to happen, because he had only thrown 12 NFL passes by the age of 28.
This situation is a little different, but it’ll be an intriguing situation for Hill. Green hadn’t had a chance to become known in St. Louis. Bradford was the first pick in the 2010 draft, and his $78 million contract and the continued losing of the franchise made him a polarizing figure in town. A lot of people are happy to see a guy like Hill get a chance. In eight years, Hill has only played 37 games, and his record in 26 starts with San Francisco and Detroit is 13-13. But he’s a career 61.9-percent passer with 41 touchdowns and 23 interceptions in 954 career attempts. His teammates love Hill because he makes plays. If there’s a breakdown, he’ll keep competing to make something good happen. He handles being a quarterback well.
In 2008, when he suffered the wrath of then-49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz, even though he was furious at the way he had been treated, he never popped off. The perception that year was that Martz handed the QB job to J.T. O’Sullivan, and didn’t even let Hill compete. He kept practicing hard until Mike Singletary prevailed over Martz to start him. The next season, Hill told Sports Illustrated, “It was really tough early, but my family, my girlfriend, close friends I could call – they were a huge help in me getting through it. You need somebody to vent to. A lot of times in a situation like that you need somebody to vent to outside of work. You don’t want to be the guy that’s bringing a bunch of negative energy around the locker room and things like that and talking about all that stuff. You don’t’ need to bring team morale down. It needs to be somebody outside the building.”
Now, Hill has the chance that he’s never been afforded. Like Warner in 1999, he has the keys to the car, and his coaching staff and teammates are ready to rally around him. Fisher, like Vermeil in ’99, doesn’t plan to scale back the offense. “We’re not going to change anything. He knows the system. Again, everybody knows we’re going to run the football first,” Fisher said. “We’re going to do that and we’ve got to do that well and we’ve got to do that to start the season. Everything else will come off of that.”
Can lightning strike twice in St. Louis? The odds are against it. As Fisher noted about Warner, “That guy that came in ended up being pretty good.” Indeed, in a high-flying offense Warner threw for 41 touchdowns, and the ’99 Rams scored 55 offensive TDs. The league has been around for 95 years, and there’s only been one Kurt Warner. But is 34-year-old Shaun Hill capable of leading a team that’s plan anyway was to play great defense and run the ball? He certainly is.
The season isn’t over. It hasn’t even started yet. Last year, Fisher had the far less talented Kellen Clemens, and his mantra was “Give ‘em hell with Kell.” The team was 4-5 with Clemens at the controls.
This year, Fisher and the Rams hope they can “move the pill, with Hill.”