JOHN GAPS III/Associated Press
One yard. This unit of measurement means absolutely nothing yet everything at the same time. Three feet can be the difference between failure and immortality.
Nineteen years ago, linebacker Mike Jones made the most famous tackle in NFL history by stopping Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson one yard short of a potential game-tying touchdown to secure a Super Bowl XXXIV victory for the St. Louis Rams.
“Everyone asks, ‘Does it bother you that you’re known for making one play?'” Jones said in an interview with Bleacher Report. “It could be a whole lot worse. I could be known for missing the tackle. It’s great. It brought some notoriety and helped my foundation to raise money for different things.”
In a moment of cosmic irony, The Greatest Show on Turf—which is still considered one of the greatest offenses in NFL history—required a defensive stop to secure the Lombardi Trophy.
Editor’s note: This is the sixth and final installment in B/R’s “Where Are They Now?” series, which profiles some former NFL postseason greats, their historic moments and what they’re doing now.
Part 1: Freddie Mitchell
Part 2: Willie Roaf
Part 3: James Harrison
Part 4: Jacoby Jones
Part 5: Tracy Porter
Part 6: Mike Jones
Dyson’s desperate stretch to break the goal line became a staple of Super Bowl highlight reels. But memories fade, even though the moment is rehashed every year.
“Everyone first asks me, ‘Are you the rapper?'” Jones joked. “I can’t hold a tune or rap so I answer, ‘No, I played football.’ As years go by, fewer people remember. At the time, everyone would say, ‘You’re the guy that made The Tackle.’ I enjoy being known as the guy who made a play in the Super Bowl.”
A great play can be like a great film. Both can become so ingrained in everyday culture that special moments lose some of their luster despite their significance.
Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday premiered 45 days before Super Bowl XXXIV. Al Pacino provided the finest locker room speech in cinematic history, one that would eerily predict a real-life scenario just a few weeks later.
You find out life’s this game of inches. So is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean, one-half a step too late or too early, and you don’t quite make it. One-half second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second.
Those inches in life and football favored Jones and the Rams. They weren’t just found in the distance between Dyson’s outstretched arm and the end zone. Jones’ perfect hand placement became the play’s biggest determining factor when one or two inches in a different spot could have changed history.
“When I came downhill for the tackle, I wrapped Kevin up with my right arm around him and my left hand landed perfectly on his knee to bring him down,” Jones described. “If put my hand a little lower, he may have run through the tackle. If it landed a little higher, he might have slipped out of the tackle. I literally placed my hand on the top of his knee. It stopped all of his momentum. It’s like losing your balance because one leg is stuck while the other gets tripped up.”
Unbeknownst to anyone at the time and very few people outside of Jones’ personal circle, the linebacker had every right to be one step too late due to an ankle injury he suffered during the third quarter.
“I was blocked, and my ankle just twisted,” Jones revealed. “I’m not here saying I pulled a Jack Youngblood with a broken leg, but I did suffer a sprained ankle that got progressively worse throughout the contest. I thought I’d be all right and decided to play through it. I definitely didn’t want to tape it. If you tape one ankle, all of the guys on the field see it’s been taped; they’ll know something is wrong with it.
“My adrenaline kept me going even though the defense was out there longer and it continued to get worse. But there was no way in the world I was going to let anyone pull me from the game. We were in a position to win a Super Bowl. Barring being near death, I wasn’t leaving the field.”
The linebacker didn’t get a chance to enjoy the moment in the locker room afterward because he immediately received treatment on his ankle. When he emerged from the training room, all of his teammates were gone. It wasn’t until one lingering reporter, Peter King, approached Jones that he realized how big of a moment just occurred.
Up until then, Jones didn’t have time to take it all in. He just made a tackle. Nothing more.
The realization of its magnitude couldn’t come during or directly after the contest because Super Bowl victors are swept up in the moment and postgame festivities.
Jones didn’t even rewatch the play until months later, when he and Dyson met for a media opportunity to discuss the championship-defining moment. At the time, the wide receiver revealed an unexpected point of view.
“Our coverage—which we called Cover 7—had some variation in it,” the former nickel linebacker said. “Cover 7 is already weird because it can be man on one side and zone on the other. When Kevin told me he knew exactly what we’d be in, that caught me off guard.
MICHAEL CONROY/Associated Press
“Basically, Tennessee tried to establish a picket fence. [Tight end Frank] Wycheck was going to try and screen me somewhat by running vertical. By the time I was supposed to realize what happened, it would be too late.
“At least, that’s what the Titans assumed. We were always taught to work underneath the guy going vertical. So even if I was beaten by a fraction, I had a guy over top of me. Getting beat underneath, though, wasn’t an option because no one else was there.
“I looked underneath with Kevin the whole time and waited for him. When he planted, I did as well and came downhill. I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to kill him.’ Whereas he thought, ‘I got what I want and am about to score a game-tying Super Bowl touchdown to go into overtime.'”
Two drastically different points of views collided. The Rams were in their best defense, while the Titans believed they had the perfect coverage to create a mismatch between a receiver and a linebacker for an easy score.
Years later, some may still wonder why Dyson ran his route short of the end zone. But the setup was exactly what Tennessee wanted. Jones simply made a better play.
The tackle doesn’t define the former linebacker, though. As a Missouri native, his profile didn’t dramatically increase in St. Louis. Jones eventually took up coaching and spent five-and-a-half seasons leading the Division II Lincoln Blue Tigers (Jefferson City, Missouri). He continues to lead young men as the head football coach at St. Louis University High School.
Jones doesn’t even use The Tackle as a teaching tool.
“I try not to use my playing experience in coaching,” he said. “What I like to utilize is a discussion of the journey. Everyone you talk to who played in and won a Super Bowl talks about the journey. The game is the game. It’s how you got there that’s important.”
Now, Jones gets to watch another Rams team play in the Super Bowl. Today’s Rams have a chance to exorcise some of the demons from the organization’s last title game appearance. They already did once by beating the Saints in New Orleans after losing in the Big Easy for Super Bowl XXXVI. That team lost to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. A bit of revenge is in order.
Plenty of similarities can be seen in the team Jones propelled to a championship and the one still playing.
“Today’s Rams, like ours, is a fresh team,” he said. “A lot of young guys are just now getting into the prime years. Todd Gurley was arguably the second-best player in the NFL before hurting his knee behind his teammate Aaron Donald, who is the game’s best player. In my time, we had Kevin Carter, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Kurt Warner.
“Guys are and were really coming into their own at the same time.”
The message hasn’t changed 19 years later. Those inches the current Rams need to become champions will be available. Maybe one of their guys, like Jones, will be in the right place at the right time to reach legendary status.
All quotes obtained firsthand by Brent Sobleski, who covers the NFL for Bleacher Report, unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.