Ask any NFL kicker, current or former, and he'll tell you the truth: Vinatieri's 45-yarder was the greatest kick in NFL history. Really, even that lofty designation doesn't do it justice, for it was so much more than that. Without the 45-yarder, it's possible that none of this -- Belichick, Brady, the talk of dynasty -- would have happened. For that reason, it absolutely makes my list of the Five Most Significant Plays of the Past Quarter-Century.
As colleague Josh Elliott hinted in yesterday's column -- OK, it was more than a hint -- our inspiration for this fab five was fueled by some of the adult beverages required to make a week in Jacksonville less insufferable. Dollar bills were stapled to the wall at Lynch's, a homey pub in Atlantic Beach, in the wee hours of Thursday morning as we engaged in a raspy-voiced discussion that began with Vinatieri's money kick and ended with ... well, to be honest, we can't really remember, but I'm sure it sounded good at the time.
The other winners, in chronological order:
You knew this was coming, because Joe Montana's marvelous touchdown pass to Dwight Clark launched the 49ers' dynasty and helped usher in the fall of the Tom Landry Cowboys. Chased by three defenders, including Ed "Too Tall" Jones, the young Montana coolly rolled right and, hemmed in at the sidelines, lofted a high pass to Clark in the back of the Candlestick Park end zone. Clark, who had improvised and slid behind cornerback Everson Walls, leaped high to snag the ball with his fingertips, setting off one of the wildest, purest celebrations you will ever see.
Ray Wersching's extra point gave San Francisco a 28-27 lead in the final minute of the 1982 NFC Championship game; cornerback Eric Wright's shoulder-pad tackle of Drew Pearson saved the day; and Lawrence Pillers' sack and forced fumble of Danny White, recovered by Jim Stuckey, sent the Niners to their first Super Bowl and led to the first of five championships in 14 years. The Cowboys didn't get back to the Ultimate Game until Jimmy Johnson guided them there 11 seasons later.
Joe Theismann had missed only one game in eight years as the Washington Redskins' starting quarterback when he lined up against the New York Giants in a hotly anticipated Monday Night Football game at RFK Stadium on Nov. 20, 1985. Having led the team to Super Bowl appearances (including a victory in Super Bowl XXVII) in the two previous seasons, Theismann, at 36, was gunning for Hall of Fame status when a young pass rusher named Lawrence Taylor swooped in from the blind side and collapsed him to the ground. The infamous hit came on a trick play -- Theismann, with the game tied at 7 in the second quarter, handed the ball to John Riggins, who turned and flipped it back to the quarterback. Flushed to his left by Jim Burt and Harry Carson, Theismann didn't see Taylor until it was too late.
What we saw next will remain etched in the memory of everyone who witnessed it, most of whom immediately felt queasy. Theismann's lower right leg was brutalized; his tibia and fibula were broken, and a bone protruded from the skin, right there in Technicolor, as he lay writhing on the ground. Taylor frantically signaled to the Redskins' bench for medical help as an eerie hush fell over RFK. The Skins came back to win the game behind backup Jay Schroeder, but the real impact of the play extended far beyond that Monday night. Suddenly Taylor was Mike Tyson -- a star who was not only one of the best players of all-time, but who also struck fear into the hearts of opponents by his mere presence. The following year he would lead the Giants to their first of two Super Bowl triumphs. The Skins, meanwhile, were forced to regroup under coach Joe Gibbs, who proved his greatness by winning two more Super Bowls with two other starters at quarterback, Doug Williams (XXII) and Mark Rypien (XXVI).
LT, again -- this time, at the expense of history. Despite a late injury to Montana, who'd been knocked from the game on a vicious hit by Giants defensive end Leonard Marshall, the 49ers were headed for victory in the 1990 NFC Championship game at Candlestick, meaning they'd have an excellent shot at a record third-consecutive Super Bowl title. Subbing for Montana, Steve Young fired a pretty spiral over the middle to tight end Brent Jones, who spiked the ball in Taylor's face after being tackled and screamed, "It's over!"
Uh, not to LT, it wasn't. The Niners led 13-12 with 2:36 remaining and were driving when Young handed the ball to star running back Roger Craig. Nose tackle Erik Howard broke through the line and dislodged the ball with his helmet, but Craig turned around and cupped his hands to retrieve it. The ball was falling toward him when the great Taylor, who had been cut-blocked on the play, rolled over several players and grabbed it out of the air just before Craig could recover it. Jeff Hostetler then drove the Giants into Niners territory, setting up Matt Bahr's game-winning 42-yard field goal as time expired. The Giants then went on to defeat the favored Bills in Super Bowl XXIV -- the first of four consecutive defeats suffered by Buffalo, which is still without that elusive title. Young, meanwhile, had to wait another four years for his shot at Super Bowl glory.
For all his greatness, John Elway was best known for his spectacular Super Bowl flops when he led the underdog Broncos into Super Bowl XXXII against the Green Bay Packers in January of 1998 at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. With the game tied at 17 in the third quarter, Elway faced a crucial third down inside the Green Bay 20. The 37-year old quarterback escaped the pocket and took off toward the first down marker, launching himself into the air as three defenders converged. The collision spun him around completely, and when he landed, Denver had much more than a first down. The play energized the Broncos, who scored a go-ahead touchdown on the drive and kept getting stronger, rolling to a 31-24 victory that broke the AFC's 13-year losing streak in the Super Bowl. The outcome kept Green Bay and quarterback Brett Favre from winning back-to-back championships, with Denver turning the trick instead by routing Atlanta in Super Bowl XXXIII. Elway, the MVP of that game, then retired as a player universally acclaimed as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.
If we're lucky, Brady, Donovan McNabb or somebody else -- perhaps even Vinatieri again -- may give us reason to consider updating this list.
CHOW DOWN:Jeff Fisher, I already loved you before this, but from the bottom of my Golden Bear heart, I applaud your pursuit of your alma mater's offensive coordinator, Norm Chow. Fight on, Titans.
EMMITT SMITH RETIREMENT PRESS CONFERENCE SUMMARY: Somewhere between Jason Garrett and Babe Laufenberg, it all fell apart.