Indisputable evidence: Steelers continue to survive in tough games
Replays of Santonio Holmes' goal-line catch proved inconclusive
Titans may be too banged up to make a serious Super Bowl run
A change at the top of the Fine 15, 10 Things I Think I Think and more
The news of Week 15:
-- I didn't see the indisputable visual evidence that Walt Coleman saw under the hood in Baltimore. It was close, very close, and most likely Santonio Holmes did break the plane of the goal line in Baltimore on the biggest play of the biggest AFC game of the weekend, but it was not indisputable.
-- The Giants and Titans don't look like Super Bowl locks anymore. And Jeff Fisher has some 'splainin' to do.
-- The Pittsburgh Steelers might be the luckiest team on the face of the earth, but they also are the most mentally tough. You'd better have a four-leaf clover, and an anvil in your shoulder pads, to beat them right now.
-- And I hope every PR guy in the league passes out to every player the part of my column about what Matt Birk is doing this week. It's that important.
I don't know about you, but I'm still reeling from what I saw yesterday. Let's get to it.
The most controversial play since ... well, since the Tuck Rule. Last night at NBC, we watched the same four replays Walt Coleman saw at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore in the final minute of the Steelers-Ravens game. You've seen it by now: With the ball at the Baltimore four-yard line and the Ravens up 9-6, Ben Roethlisberger scrambled and eventually found Santonio Holmes just over the goal line in the end zone. Holmes caught the pass very close to the goal line, with the ball appearing to be outside the goal line at first look and his feet to be in the end zone. The head lineman, Paul Weidner, standing at the goal line on the far sideline, peered around a player as he tried to see the play, and he ruled the ball did not touch the plane of the goal line. All the ball has to in this case is touch the imaginary plane of the goal line while the player has two feet down. It was agonizingly close, but Weidner ruled the ball should be placed at about the three-inch line.
The magnitude of the play can't be overstated. If the play is upheld, it's fourth-and-three-inches, and Mike Tomlin has the biggest call of his coaching career to make -- go for the touchdown to win the game, knowing he might end up turning it over on downs, or kick the gimme field goal and play for overtime. A Pittsburgh win would clinch the division title. A Baltimore win would tie the two mortal enemies with two weeks to go.
When we first saw the replay at NBC on one huge, high-def monitor, it appeared to back the call on the field of no touchdown, or make the call inconclusive. But it became like a Where's Waldo thing. The longer you looked at it, the more you could convince yourself the ball, solidly in Holmes' grasp, did pierce the imaginary plane by a matter of inches. But indisputable? By 10:30 p.m., I bet I'd seen it 25 times. And it was the classic kind of play that, if the linesman had called it a touchdown, I don't think Coleman could have overturned it, and if the linesman had ruled it short, I don't think Coleman could have overturned it. My brethren at NBC -- Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick, Cris Collinsworth and Bob Costas -- thought it was inconclusive. All of them.
After the game, Coleman told a pool reporter that Holmes "had two feet down and completed the catch with control of the ball breaking the plane of the goal line ... When he gained control of the ball, the ball was breaking the plane, and then he fell into the field of play. But to have a touchdown, all you have to have is a catch, which is the two feet down, possession and control of the ball breaking the plane."
I called NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, who'd spoken with Coleman and the replay assistant following the game. Now, I have to tell you that in my jobs at NBC and Sports Illustrated I have occasion to speak with Pereira nearly every weekend about a play or two from the games, either to clarify something for the Football Night in America show or for my column. Pereira calls them the way he sees them. My experience is that Pereira does not whitewash a bad call. And last night, I asked him point blank if he thought there was indisputable visual evidence that the ball broke the plane of the goal line. "Yes, I do,'' he said.
I watched some more. I saw Holmes catching the ball, and at the moment of the catch, the absolute moment, it appears the ball is piercing the plane by inches. But is it a lock that the ball crossed the line? No. I watched it a few more times. I don't see it. I see the likelihood of the ball breaking the plane. I do not see the certainty. The replay rule mandates indisputable visual evidence to change a call -- if 20 people are watching a play, they see the same thing. This was not one of those plays.
This is the continuing problem with the replay system. I think officials need to realize what "indisputable'' means. It doesn't mean likely, or most likely. We still see calls like this, year after year. I'm sure we'll hear cries to abolish replay in the coming days, which is ridiculous. I just wish the rule would be applied exactly the way it was intended. As, I'm sure, do the fine people of Baltimore this morning.
The favorites of two weeks ago have to be wondering what hit them. The Giants, without the injured Brandon Jacobs and the suspended Plaxico Burress and the injured and underrated right tackle Kareem McKenzie, have the offense of a .500 team. We know Burress is gone for the year, and it is irrefutable for the long term that his absence is going to hurt the Giants' attack. But if they have to play this week against Carolina without Jacobs and McKenzie, they could lose home-field throughout the NFC playoffs to Carolina -- and, amazingly, they might have to win at Minnesota in Week 17 (an equally difficult task if the Vikings play like they did Sunday in Arizona) to secure the second seed and a first-round bye. Which, right now, is very, very important for a banged-up Giants team.
The Titans have Pittsburgh coming to Nashville on Sunday afternoon, and suddenly, that's a vital game. The winner of that game will be the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, the loser No. 2. If you're the Titans, you don't want to play the championship game at one of the toughest places to play in January (or any other time for that matter), Heinz Field. When I talked to Jeff Fisher before he boarded the plane in Houston after the 13-12 loss to the Texans, he didn't know the fate of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who appeared to have suffered a left knee strain when a Houston offensive lineman fell on the knee, caving it in, in a fourth-quarter pileup. "He'll have an MRI tomorrow,'' Fisher said. "I don't think it's that bad. The trainers didn't think so. Maybe a week.''
This was Fisher's explanation of his odd call at the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter: With Tennessee trailing 13-12 and a fourth-and-three at the Houston 32, the Titans called Rob Bironas back from the field. Instead of attempting a 49- or 50-yard field goal, Fisher decided to throw for first down. And Collins' deep fade down the left side (a curious call when you only need three yards) for Justin McCareins went incomplete.
As it turned out, Hurricane Ike played a big role in Fisher's call. After the September hurricane damaged some roof tiles, the Texans determined they wouldn't be able to close the roof for the rest of the season, until repairs could be made to the roof. So on a blustery day, with 26-mph winds swirling in the stadium, Fisher kicked himself for a decision he didn't make, and it wasn't about not kicking the 49-yarder. "I should have taken the wind in the fourth in the quarter,'' Fisher told me. "That's one I wish I had back. Before the game, Rob was trying field goals at that end from 48, 50, 51, and he was falling short. Way short, on a couple of them.''
Tennessee had won the toss before the game. The Titans elected to receive, and Houston chose which goal to defend, picking the favorable winds in the second and fourth quarters. Obviously, Fisher wishes he had deferred, and taken the prevailing winds in the second and fourth quarters.
If Tennessee loses to Pittsburgh, Fisher's going to remember that coin flip for a long, long time.
The Steelers are one admirable football team. "Seven delivered,'' Mike Tomlin said after the win in Baltimore, referring to Roethlisberger. He's right. When it counted, when the Steelers had to have it, Roethlisberger, after hanging in there and again getting the tar beat out of him by the most brutal and unpredictable pass-rush of this era, made enough plays on the winning 92-yard drive to win -- the plays his counterpart, Joe Flacco, couldn't make. There's no shame in that for Flacco; he was facing a Steel Curtain of his own.
This is what I've determined about the Steelers: I think we should stop wondering about how they'll play in January because of their offensive shortcomings. I said last spring this was the most arduous schedule I've ever seen laid out for a team. Sometimes schedules lie in April because teams in November aren't what they seemed in the spring. Not this one. It's been a schedule from hell all season, and it won't gear down 'til Week 17, at home against Cleveland.
Look at what this team has done since Week 4, all with Roethlisberger playing despite a wounded shoulder: Survived a 15-round fight with Baltimore at home to win 23-20 ... won a slightly less physical game at Jacksonville the next week, 26-21, beating the team that had beaten them twice in a month in Pittsburgh last winter ... lost to the Giants at home, in part because of long-snapper problems ... impaled the Redskins in Washington at a time when the Redskins had won six of seven ... played the only game they really wish they could take back, losing 24-20 to Indy on two Roethlisberger picks in the final five minutes ... had the strange 11-10 slugfest with San Diego ... won at Foxboro by 23 in a combo platter of Patriots mistakes and physical dominance ... got a gift against Dallas in a game the Cowboys absolutely had to have ... and won a game Ray Lewis and Ed Reed will never forget in one of the most physical games you'll ever see.
So the Steelers are 11-3. They've had their share of good fortune, but to be 11-3 against that schedule is to be 13-1 or 14-0 against most other schedules.
Help Matt Birk, players. Maybe I should spend my last part of the top of this column on the Cowboys escaping the Werderian mayhem to find playoff life last night.
But I can't get this phone conversation I had Saturday afternoon with a ghost from Texas out of my mind.
A ghost Dwight Harrison isn't, but he's treated like one. A second-round pick of the Denver Broncos in 1971, Harrison played 10 years, mostly at cornerback, with the Broncos, Bills, Colts and Raiders. In 1975, starting at right corner for Buffalo, he was fourth in the league with eight interceptions. Today, he is a 60-year-old man, living alone, in a FEMA trailer in Beaumont, Texas, with no running water and an income of $637 a month from a Social Security disability fund. He gets no pension or medical benefits from the NFL or NFLPA, and the medication he needs eats up much of his monthly stipend.
Last week, he was told his latest appeal for funds from the NFLPA was denied. He can't keep a job because he has severe post-concussion syndrome from what he believes are at least 15 instances of head trauma or concussions in his NFL career. In a prior appeal for pension benefits, he was denied, he said, because he was told the concussions were from his college career, a claim he vehemently denies. He says he started having them in the NFL, and one was so severe when he was in Buffalo that when the coaches put on the film the next day to review the game they'd just played, he couldn't remember an entire half of football that he played.
He can't take long walks or go places he's even vaguely unfamiliar with. "I'd forget how to get back to my trailer,'' he said.
"Dogs live better than me, Mr. King,'' he said. "I'm embarrassed, I'm ashamed, I can't function. And I can't get any help.''
I'm not writing this to blame the NFL, the NFL Players Association or Dwight Harrison for the predicament he's in. Every time I listen to somebody in the league or the union explain how much they're doing for the suffering ex-players, and every time I listen to old players beat the union and the league over the head, all I can think of is a terminally troubled, punch-drunk Mike Webster dying of a heart attack at 50, a depressed Andre Waters killing himself at 44 following repeated brain trauma and scores of players with permanently damaged knees and hips and shoulders from football -- and complaining football isn't paying enough money or attention to their plights.
It's time to stop laying blame everywhere. It's time to start doing something meaningful about the crisis. I'm glad Roger Goodell is taking time to make regional visits to see the problem of injured and indigent retired players first-hand, and maybe this will lead to a long-term solution to the problem.
The best way, long-term, for owners and players to solve the crisis is to take a tiny piece of their gigantic pie and give it to a fund for needy retired players; but that's not going to happen, at least not until there's serious bargaining for a new labor agreement, and I don't see any new deal coming 'til 2010. The best way, short-term, to start is for players to take the matter into their own hands because the owners, of their own volition, won't.
I was drawn to Harrison's story by Minnesota center Matt Birk, who is doing something I hope every player in this league will heed this week. Birk is donating $50,000 from his Week 16 gamecheck (his base salary is $5.32 million this year) to jump-start Gridiron Guardian Sunday. Birk has written to all NFL players, who should be receiving the letter early this week, asking the rank-and-file to donate a portion of their pay this week to the Gridiron Greats. In the letter, Birk says: "This is a humanitarian issue, and the people suffering at the center of it are some of our own.'' Each player will be able to make a contribution to the cause from this week's paycheck.
Too often in discussions like this, we don't get to the heart of the matter -- a lot of the players of today will be the Dwight Harrisons of tomorrow. "That's why we have to do something,'' Birk told me. "In 10 years, who knows? It could be one of us. You never know what can happen. One play in this game can change your life forever. We always think, 'If something happens to me, my family will be taken care of. I will be taken care of.' But that's what these guys thought too. That's what's scary.
"Last year, Gridiron Greats raised about $300,000 on an effort like this one. We're hoping to exceed that this year. I know everyone's trying to get into these players' pockets. I just hope they realize that guys who were in their shoes once, some of them, have been fighting for 15, 20 years for decent medical care and continually get turned down. They need help for the basic necessities of life.''
Which Harrison says includes food. He has to decide sometimes whether to fill a prescription or his stomach.
"I'm just one man,'' he said. "There's a lot more of us out here. They're ashamed to admit how they're living. They don't want to come out in public. But they need help. I'm the tip of the iceberg.''