Bruce, the ultimate St. Louis Ram, stays put
By Bill Coats
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
03/11/2006
Rams Bruce
Isaac Bruce (right) saw his numbers decline in a injury-plagued 2005, but he still became the 12th receiver in NFL history to surpass 12,000 receving yards.
(Paul Sancya/AP)

On April 12, 2001, free-agent cornerback Todd Lyght left the Rams for Detroit, and wide receiver Isaac Bruce became the only remaining player who was with the team when it moved here in 1995. For several days this past week, it appeared as if that final tie to Los Angeles was thisclose to being severed.

On Sunday night, while the NFL owners and players wrangled over a new collective bargaining agreement, the Rams did something that to some had been unthinkable: Unable to reach agreement on a contract extension, they released Bruce. At the heart of the issue was Bruce's salary cap figure for 2006, a whopping $10.04 million.

Team officials, including new coach Scott Linehan, expressed confidence that Bruce would be re-signed. Still, he was free to accept a deal with any other team, and at least six expressed interest.

Negotiations with the Rams rekindled after a new CBA was voted in Wednesday night and the cap went to $102 million from $94.5 million. On Friday, Bruce signed a three-year, $15 million deal to remain in St. Louis.

Thus, a significant chapter in our town's NFL history was spared an abrupt and prickly conclusion.

Bruce, 33, has played 164 of his 176 games (regular season and playoffs) after the Rams moved here. He has collected 12,765 of his 13,037 receiving yards, caught 836 of his 857 passes, scored 78 of his 81 touchdowns and made all four of his Pro Bowls while representing the Gateway City.

Despite missing large chunks of three seasons because of injuries, he holds franchise records for receptions, receiving yards and and touchdown catches.

If Bruce eventually is elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he would be the first inductee who played the bulk of his career here since former Cardinals tackle Dan Dierdorf, class of 1996.

Road to success

In 1995, Bruce was a 22-year-old former Memphis State standout coming off a solid if not spectacular rookie season (21 catches, 272 yards, two touchdowns) when owner Georgia Frontiere decided to accept a lucrative offer from St. Louis. The Rams hadn't had a winning season in five years, including a 4-12 record in 1994.

The St. Louis Rams slogged through four more sub-.500 seasons before the curtain rose on the "Greatest Show on Turf" in 1999. With Bruce latching on to 12 of Kurt Warner's 41 touchdown passes, the Rams went from 4-12 in '98 to 13-3 and the franchise's first Super Bowl berth since 1980.

On Jan. 30, 2000, in Atlanta, the Rams cruised to a 16-0 lead against Tennessee in Super Bowl XXXIV. The Titans rallied, though, and when the Rams took possession at their 27-yard line with just over 2 minutes remaining, it was 16-16.

On the first play, Warner lofted a pass down the right sideline for a streaking Bruce. He hauled it in at the Titans' 37, dodged a defender, and headed for the end zone.

"I was dog-tired," said Bruce, who had six catches for 162 yards in the 23-16 triumph that brought St. Louis its only NFL championship. "We didn't want to go to overtime."

Bruce's 11 seasons in St. Louis have been marked by consistency, fueled by a deep pride and unrelenting work ethic. Former Rams tight end Ernie Conwell echoed others' evaluations when he called Bruce "the consummate professional."

Bruce's tour in St. Louis hasn't been without its rocky times, however. In 1997, after a loss to Seattle dropped the Rams to 2-5, Bruce questioned his unit's effort."The offense is not playing hard right now," he said.

First-year Rams coach Dick Vermeil reacted angrily. He called Bruce a "so-called superstar" and assailed him for criticizing his teammates in the media and not face-to-face.

That dust-up cleared quickly, and Vermeil became one of Bruce's staunchest supporters. Two years later, they hoisted the Lombardi Trophy together in Atlanta.

Milestones

Though he missed five games and was hobbled in several others with "turf toe," Bruce established several milestones this past season. His statistics - 36 catches for 525 yards - were his lowest since 1998, another injury-plagued season.

Still he became just the 14th receiver in league history to amass 800 regular-season catches and the 12th to surpass 12,000 receiving yards. His 15.1-yards-per-catch average is No. 3 among those with at least 800 receptions.

Bruce said he was "happy, mainly for the organization" to achieve such milestones. But he emphasized that he planned to tack on even more numbers.

"I feel like I've got a long career ahead of me," he said. "So I'm not really ready to put a punctuation mark behind it. I just move on, move to the next week."

And now to the next season, which will be Bruce's sixth as The Last Los Angeles Ram.