CANTON, Ohio -- There is no NFL team in the Gateway City now, a jolting loss to a community that lost the Cardinals in 1988 to Arizona and a potential expansion team in 1993 to Carolina and Jacksonville for the 1995 season.
But the Rams fled Anaheim in 1995, and headed to St. Louis to play in the Trans World Dome that would later be called the Edward Jones Dome. Now, it's the Dome at America's Center, and there won't be professional football played there anymore.
However, what came to be christened the "Greatest Show on Turf" emerged in 1999 as quarterback Kurt Warner rose from a grocery store back-room worker to be league MVP; running back Marshall Faulk was acquired from the Indianapolis Colts and his versatility as runner, receiver and pass protector set the tone for the offense; and wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt made it impossible to key on one pass-catcher.
The innovative risk-taker was offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who believed in passing the ball to get a lead and then running the ball to secure the victory.
However, despite that group of other-worldly offensive talent, none of it would have been possible without left tackle Orlando Pace, who made sure no one came close to Warner. There is an agreement on that with most everyone. This weekend, Pace will take his rightful place in Canton when he is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Faulk was elected in 2011, and those other four players became eligible at the same time in 2015. Players and others were asked this by me before the 2015 finalists were selected: How would you rank Bruce, Holt, Pace and Warner? To a man they said Pace was No. 1 because the empty backfields and quick-strike offense employed by Martz would not have been possible without him negating his man on play after play.
The humble Bruce says of Pace's value, "Myself, Torry, Marshall, Kurt Warner. All those guys could be replaced for a five-week stretch and the production level wouldn't fall off. I've always said from Day 1 and I kept a close eye on this: Orlando Pace was the only guy on that team that was irreplaceable. Whenever you would see Orlando at work - we called him 'The Big Punisher' - he would just X his guy out.
"He'd X out some of the premier pass rushers of our era. He'd make it possible for Kurt, Trent (Green) to drop back seven yards, scan the defense, go from one progression to the next and even come back to the first progression and still deliver a pass downfield. Orlando Pace was a premier pass blocker, a road grader when it came down to the run game. He made everyone else's job on that team so much easier, from Coach Martz all the way down to all of us."
Martz concurs, telling Hall-of-Fame selector Bernie Miklasz, who was the first to speak for Pace at the selection meeting last February, "I never remember having to put a tight end on Orlando's side to give him help. I never put a running back over there to chip. We were a very aggressive offense, and we did some things that no one else was doing back then, and we had to have the perfect tackle to make it all go. If Orlando couldn't keep Warner's blind side clean, or if Orlando just had a lot of breakdowns, we wouldn't have been able to do a lot of the stuff that (scores) over 500 points for three years in a row.
"It was ridiculous, what we asked Orlando to do. But you could just run any formation or routes that you wanted, knowing that he'd be over there. You could just X out his man, and everyone else on the offense, including the coaches, could do their job without concern."
He said, "Looking back on it, I credit those 4-12 seasons because it made you tougher mentally. Everyone had something to prove. That year we really took on Mike Martz's identity. He was really cocky, really arrogant, really confident in us. We took that on. Every week, it just kept building. We just took the mindset that we didn't care who we were playing. It was all about us as individuals, as an offense. We didn't care if the defense gave up 50 points. We felt we could score 51."
What Pace laments is that the great run didn't last longer.
"We had so many great players, we probably should have won more than we won," he said. "Torry, Isaac, Kurt, Marshall, the rest of the line and those guys that probably won't get a lot of credit. I share this with them. Coach Martz said it best: it was a special time in a special place."
And now, Pace will experience another special time in the special place that is Canton, while in his heart believing that Warner, Bruce and Holt will soon follow him in the years ahead.
--Howard Balzer is in his 40th year covering the National Football League and is one of 46 selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Hall's Contributors Committee.