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Miracle Worker The Titans and their ever-ready coach, Jeff Fisher, pulled off a play for the ages as the postseason kicked off in spectacular fashion

Jan. 17, 2000
Jan. 17, 2000

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Jan. 17, 2000

Miracle Worker The Titans and their ever-ready coach, Jeff Fisher, pulled off a play for the ages as the postseason kicked off in spectacular fashion

There was too much noise and precious little poise in Jeff
Fisher's world, and when the moment of truth arrived, Fisher,
the Tennessee Titans' ever-ready coach, was startled by a shrill
whistle. "Quiet, everybody!" ordered his wife, Juli, after
removing her thumb and forefinger from her mouth. "This is what
we've all been waiting for." Dutifully, 30 family members and
friends who had gathered at the Fishers' Franklin, Tenn., home
last Saturday night turned their attention to a small TV set
wedged inside a kitchen cabinet and prepared to review a
fantastic finish that they and millions of other football fans
will relive for the rest of their lives.

This is an article from the Jan. 17, 2000 issue Original Layout

What unfolded before them, in living color, was the 21st
century's first classic sports highlight, the NFL's most electric
ending since Franco Harris's Immaculate Reception in 1972: Kevin
Dyson dashing down the sideline with the pulse-tweaking kickoff
return that gave the Titans a 22-16 AFC wild-card playoff victory
over the Buffalo Bills. The Fishers' kitchen was filled with the
same emotion and merriment as Nashville's Adelphia Coliseum had
contained four hours earlier. For when Dyson reached the end zone
with three seconds left, sending the Titans to Indianapolis for a
second-round showdown against the Colts on Sunday, Fisher
continued his amazing journey--a six-year coaching spin that has
been as choppy as a late-night cruise with Puffy Combs and
Jennifer Lopez.

After viewing a replay for the first time, the 41-year-old Fisher
put down his wine glass, dropped his head and looked humbled by
the magnitude of the feat. "They're calling it the Music City
Miracle," said Dianne Girard, Fisher's mother-in-law. Yet Dyson's
75-yard catch and dash--which came after fullback Lorenzo Neal had
fielded a short, high kickoff and handed off to tight end Frank
Wycheck, who ran to his right before throwing across the field to
Dyson behind a wall of blockers along the left sideline--was
anything but supernatural. True to his methodical nature, Fisher
had anticipated just such a situation, chosen a viable escape
route, made sure his team knew the drill and practiced the play
at the end of each Saturday's special teams session.

"Another one of Jeff Fisher's crazy setups," quipped Blaine
Bishop, the Titans' veteran free safety. "You name the
situation--10 seconds left, we take an intentional safety; just
before halftime, we call a fair catch and try a free kick--and
we'll practice it. Guys'll be tired and rolling their eyes,
saying, 'Yeah, like this'll ever come up.'"

Fisher, an L.A. native with a highway cop's mustache, doesn't fit
into any of the NFL's typical coaching boxes. He's not a
professorial guru like Mike Shanahan, a peppy motivator like Dick
Vermeil or a macho antagonist like his mentor, Buddy Ryan.
Fisher's approach is based on two simple premises--relentless
preparation and poise under pressure--that he regularly hammers
home to his players.

For 4 1/2 seasons, including consecutive 8-8 finishes from 1996
through '98, Fisher's system failed to yield a winning record. He
went into this season under the cloud of a playoffs-or-pink-slip
decree from Titans owner Bud Adams. That came off as a bit harsh,
since it was Adams who had created most of the team's logistical
nightmares, including the indignity of being housed for the last
two years in a temporary training facility consisting of three
trailers that served as the coaching staff's offices, meeting
rooms and cafeteria. "When you hang out in trailers, you start
feeling real trailer park," Bishop said last Thursday as he dined
at a Brentwood, Tenn., eatery. "We felt second-rate, like we
weren't even in the NFL. But Jeff had faith in the system and
kept his cool, and we kept our faith in him."

"Most people, even those in our business, have no idea what an
incredible job Jeff Fisher has done the past few years," says
Titans special teams coach Alan Lowry, the man who devised the
razzle-dazzle return.

Life isn't always fair, though, even in the NFL, and Fisher
approached his make-or-break season as coach of Trailer Park
America's Team with the same aggressive mentality that
characterizes his innovative defensive schemes. Shortly after the
end of the '98 season, he received a front-office edict to purge
several assistants, including Lowry, who had served as his
receivers coach the previous two years. Fisher shared the news
with Lowry, whom he had grown friendly with while both were San
Francisco 49ers assistants in 1992 and '93, then hopped a plane
to Houston and showed up unannounced at Adams's office. "He was
surprised to see me, but he was very receptive," Fisher says.
"Alan was being blamed for things out of his control--our best
receiver [Yancey Thigpen] was hurt most of the year, Kevin Dyson
was a rookie struggling to adjust, and our quarterback [Steve
McNair] was in his second year as a starter. I told Bud that Alan
had done the best job of any of my assistants that year, and that
I wanted to move him to special teams, where he had a great
history."

Fisher is a former Chicago Bears safety who retired following the
team's Super Bowl season in '85--he spent that year on injured
reserve with a bad ankle and began his coaching career as an
unofficial assistant to Ryan, the defensive coordinator--but he is
far from being one of the guys. "He's pretty much all business,"
says Bruce Matthews, the Titans' 17-year veteran guard who was
Fisher's teammate at USC. "As much as players talk about wanting
to have the freedom to make plays on the field and not be babysat
off it, you quickly realize that discipline is what wins. Jeff
pays attention to the little things, because those things add up
and cost you games."

Fisher's strategic wrinkles have helped the Titans all season,
from the eight-defensive-back alignment he devised to help
neutralize St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk in an Oct.
31 victory to the no-huddle, goal line offense that produced
McNair's one-yard touchdown run against the Bills midway through
the second quarter of Saturday's game. Fisher also kept his team
on an even keel emotionally, a contrast to what happened in
Buffalo leading up to the game (coach Wade Phillips's quarterback
switching and wideout Andre Reed's cyber-bitching about how he
was being used). The disparity seemed to manifest itself in the
wild-card game penalty totals: 10 for the Bills, two for the
Titans.

Even after Steve Christie's 41-yard field goal gave Buffalo an
apparent 16-15 victory with 16 seconds remaining, the Titans kept
their eyes on the prize. They knew what was coming--Home Run
Throwback, a play Lowry patterned after a similar return for a
touchdown that propelled SMU over Texas Tech and preserved the
Mustangs' undefeated season in 1982. Home Run Throwback is
designed to burn an overpursuing coverage team. There was a
slight problem, however: The star didn't know the script.

Injuries to two of Tennessee's top three return men, Derrick
Mason (concussion) and Anthony Dorsett (cramps), led Lowry to
turn to Dyson, a second-year receiver who before Saturday was
known chiefly (and unflatteringly) as the only wideout drafted
ahead of the Minnesota Vikings' Randy Moss in 1998. Dyson, who
had neither practiced the play nor returned an NFL kickoff, got a
quick tutorial from Fisher seconds before racing onto the field.

The play featured a 5-4-2 alignment, with Dyson joining wideout
Issac Byrd as deep men and Wycheck as the second man from the
right on the middle line. Expecting a squib kick, the Titans
shifted linebacker Greg Favors, the man in the middle of the
front line, to his left in order to create a gap. The idea was to
lure Christie into grounding the ball straight ahead, where
Wycheck would be in position to field it. But Christie instead
sent a mid-range kick toward the left of the Titans' alignment,
and Neal caught it on the fly. "Luckily," Fisher says, "it was
high enough for Frank to get over to take the ball from Lorenzo.
The reason their coverage broke down was because Lorenzo got the
ball to Frank."

Had Christie kicked the ball deep, another Titans player,
probably Byrd, would have thrown the pass. But Wycheck, who
zinged a 61-yard touchdown pass to Byrd off a trick play in
Tennessee's 30-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Dec. 19, is
the man Fisher wanted to make the toss--ideally, to Byrd, who
would then run a sort of option sprint with Dyson at his left.

Wycheck, a seventh-year tight end who caught a team-high 69
passes this season, is long on talent and short on attitude.
While hosting a Super Bowl party last year, he got a call from
Titans media relations director Tony Wyllie, who informed Wycheck
he had made the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement. "You're
messing with me," said Wycheck, who remained unconvinced until an
NFL official called later.

Wycheck took Neal's handoff and started to his right, taking 10
Bills with him. Then he stopped at the 25-yard line and, spotting
Dyson in perfect position, bypassed Byrd and threw a strike.
Depending on one's vantage point, the ball went either straight
across the field or a tad forward before landing in Dyson's
anxious hands. (Bills cornerback Thomas Smith said several Titans
told him immediately after the game that they believed the pass
traveled forward; referee Phil Luckett upheld the call after a
replay review.) Dyson had a row of blockers--"He looked like Eddie
Murphy in Coming to America, with all those bodyguards," said
Carolina Panthers linebacker Micheal Barrow, who watched his
former team's victory from the Adelphia stands--and only Christie,
who would be knocked off his feet by linebacker Terry Killens, to
beat.

Afterward, in a jubilant Titans locker room, Adams was asked
about the possibility of extending Fisher's contract, which
expires after next season. Without committing himself, Adams
asked, "Who wouldn't want him around for a long time? He's a
first-class guy who communicates with his players and is great in
the community."

Back home that night, Fisher shared his finest hour with the
community he cherishes most, a group that included his parents,
Roger and Janette, and his and Juli's three children, 12-year-old
Brandon, nine-year-old Tara and seven-year-old Trent. Burgers
were flipped, fireworks were detonated, and the makeshift dance
floor was the hottest spot of all. Juli, a former Rose Bowl
princess who met Jeff at a luncheon before USC's 1979 appearance
in the granddaddy of 'em all, announced that to honor Lowry's
trick play, she was "surrendering her crown" to Alan's wife,
Donna. With Jan and Dean's Little Old Lady from Pasadena blaring,
Juli presented Donna with a gold lame jacket, matching boots, a
pink rose and a green cardboard crown.

Juli danced for another hour before the inevitable disco
selection, Hot Chocolate's You Sexy Thing, came over the
speakers. The erstwhile princess looked positively regal as she
gestured toward her husband and shouted along with the lyrics, "I
believe in miracles!"

Fisher flashed a broad smile, and suddenly it felt as if he and
Juli were the only ones in the room. "Hey, Jules," he said
softly, "I believe in them, too."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO CONVOY Dyson (87), who had never returned a kickoff or practiced the trick play, left the Bills in his wake as he streaked down the left sideline behind an army of blockers.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO THORN IN THE SIDE Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse sacked the Bills' Rob Johnson twice; the first (opposite) forced a fumble and the second resulted in a safety.COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER WORKHORSE Eddie George, who gained 106 yards on 29 carries, was one of the few bright spots on a struggling Titans offense.
"Another of Jeff Fisher's crazy setups," Bishop said of the
trick kickoff return. "You name the situation, and we'll
practice it."
"Jeff pays attention to the little things," says Matthews, a
17-year veteran, "because those things add up and cost you
games."