EARTH CITY, Mo. -- During the course of his illustrious 18-year NFL career, Peyton Manning only played against the Rams in four regular-season games, splitting those contests. Compared to the rest of the league, Manning simply didn't have much of an impact on the Rams.
As Manning rides off into retirement with a press conference scheduled for Monday in Denver, there's no shortage of memories and stories coming from 32 NFL teams. What Manning did in and for the game has touched all of them in some way. But for the Rams, it's something Manning didn't do that helped alter the course of the franchise.
Let's go back to 1997. Manning had just completed his junior season at Tennessee and he was, by all accounts, a sure thing to be the first player taken in the NFL draft the moment he declared to participate in it. Only problem is, he chose to stay. Manning loved Rocky Top and Rocky Top loved Manning and he couldn't resist the urge to return and chase that elusive national championship and Heisman Trophy.
The announcement sent shockwaves through the college and pro games, waves that were especially felt in New York, where the Jets held the No. 1 overall pick after a dreadful 1-15 season. New York had suffered through that season after free-agent signee Neil O'Donnell fizzled and backup Frank Reich didn't fare much better in his stead. Manning to the Jets was a no-brainer.
Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the Rams were coming off a paltry 6-10 season. They fired coach Rich Brooks after the season and persuaded Dick Vermeil to leave the broadcast booth and return to coaching. The Rams would have been in the Manning market themselves had he declared but they had the No. 6 overall pick, which would have been far out of reach for the top player in the draft.
One of the first calls Vermeil made was to Jets football honcho Bill Parcells asking about the No. 1 pick.
After Manning's announcement, the list of quarterbacks available was no longer appealing. The Jets were willing to deal. Even without Manning available, Vermeil and the Rams believed there was another player available who could transform their offense: tackle Orlando Pace.
Vermeil has told the story multiple times, recalling that it was relatively easy to deal with Parcells to make the deal come together after just a handful of telephone calls. On April 17, the Rams and Jets finalized a trade that sent the No. 1 overall pick to the Rams in exchange for the Rams' first, third, fourth and seventh-round choices.
The Jets ended up trading down again and selecting linebacker James Farrior and the 49ers used the only first-round choice on a quarterback, selecting Virginia Tech’s Jim Druckenmiller with the 26th pick.
In St. Louis, a celebration was underway as the Rams turned their card in less than halfway through the allotted time. It had Pace's name on it. Immediately, Pace made the Rams offensive line better but it took two full years before the offense would finally take off.
When it did, the Rams' offense became a supernova, one of the most electrifying and productive offenses in NFL history. It became known as "The Greatest Show on Turf" and featured stars like Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. Ask any of those players who was the one player that made it all possible and you get a unanimous response.
"A lot of us on the perimeter -- quarterbacks, running backs -- sometimes we could be replaced for a game or two," Bruce said. "But there was a guy like Orlando Pace, there’s no replacing him. How do you do what you do without him there? He was the one guy we didn’t want to lose to a knee injury or for two or three games. Oh, no, that changes everything. So to me, he’s the guy. He’s the guy that you didn’t want to have to replace. Thank god we didn’t have to."
In February, Pace was selected to the 2016 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Manning will be eligible to join him in Canton in 2021. But because he didn't join Pace in the 1997 draft class, the Rams were forever changed.