Overtime penalty flag kicks Steelers in the teethPosted: Saturday January 11, 2003 11:10 PM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
And there, across the stunned Pittsburgh locker room, Joey Porter vented. In fact, the Steelers linebacker was doing more than simple venting.
Joey Porter was mad. Spitting mad.
"I don't care how good the game was, what it looked like. I got to go home," Porter said. "I think this one ... this one is going to stick in my mind. The ref took that game from us. No matter what opportunities we had earlier in the game -- what we could have done -- it came down to that."
In a tense, thrilling and ultimately controversial AFC Divisional playoff game Saturday at The Coliseum, the Tennessee Titans edged Pittsburgh 34-31 in overtime to advance to next weekend's AFC title game.
It was one of those games that, almost from the start, looked like it could come down to a big play at the end. And when it came down to a few of them -- when Tennessee kicker Joe Nedney got another chance at a chippy field goal in OT, when fireworks went off prematurely, when penalty flags flew and timeouts that might have been called weren't -- the beat-up Steelers found the loss hard to swallow.
By the look of the tensely clenched jaw of Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher afterward, he couldn't have swallowed much of anything.
"For a game to be decided on that call is ludicrous," Cowher squeezed out. "Fine me if you want. That's the truth."
The call -- or The Call, as it will be known in Pittsburgh for years to come -- came with 12:52 left in the first overtime. Nedney had lined up for a 31-yard field goal and, in fact, pushed it through easily. Fireworks went off, the crowd erupted, and Tennessee seemed ready to move on.
But the Steelers had called a timeout just before the snap, so the Titans had to line up to try it again. And this time, the left-footed Nedney pulled the chip shot to the right. The game, it seemed, would grind on.
And then, the flag. Pittsburgh's Washington, coming off the right side of the defensive formation, had run into Nedney.
It wasn't much. He wasn't blocked into him. But he definitely hit him well after the kick was away. Nedney spun away from the contact -- many thought it was a heck of an acting job -- and the flag was thrown.
Cowher stepped onto the edge of the field, crouched and buried his face in his gloved hands.
"He knew he missed it, and I think he was falling down because he was so upset," Pittsburgh kicker Jeff Reed said of Nedney. "Maybe Dewayne laid a hand on him or something. It may be a home-crowd favorite type of thing. I don't know."
Sometimes a play like that is called a penalty. Often, with the game on the line, it is not.
This time, in front of nearly 69,000 people and in the wake of a controversial ending to last week's New York Giants-San Francisco 49ers game -- an ending that the NFL admitted its referees blew -- the flag was thrown, Nedney got another chance 5 yards closer, and, this time, he made good on a 26-yarder.
"When it comes down to something like that ... don't throw a flag two seconds later," Porter said. "That's just not right."
The refs also took some heat from the Steelers for not recognizing a timeout just before the kick. In fact, Steelers linebacker Jason Gildon said he had called for a timeout.
"I called him by his first name. I said, 'Chad [umpire Chad Brown], I want a timeout,'" Gildon said. "And he told me we didn't have any timeouts."
The Steelers, in fact, did have more timeouts.
"Are these guys being held accountable? You tell me."
It was a bad night for the refs. Earlier in the game, referee Ron Blum admitted over the public address system that he did not know if a call was reviewable. He had to call upstairs to the replay officials to make sure.
"That's wrong," Cowher fumed.
"He's the head ref. He's the head ref. He has a white hat on. That wasn't a hard call. How hard is that?" Porter asked.
No harder, evidently, than the running-into-the-kicker call that, essentially, decided the game.
"Let us play. That guy [Nedney] missed it. It was a chip shot for him and they [the officials] bailed him out. The guy chokes, and they bail him out," Porter said. "We fought too hard for that. When the game is on the line, a ref shouldn't be able to make a call like that."
Not all the Steelers were as hot as Porter and Cowher about the last call. In fact, Washington was subdued about it. Moments before the fateful flag, Washington had given up a 31-yard pass play by missing a tackle that would have kept the play to a short gain. That mistake put the Steelers in the position of having to try to block a field goal.
"Those are the kinds of plays you have to make. A simple catch, a simple tackle. Those yards after the catch are tough to take," Washington said.
In the end, though, Washington -- and the rest of Pittsburgh -- will remember this game for a flag that might not have been thrown.
"I don't know. I'm not Paul Tagliabue. I don't know what should and shouldn't be called," Washington said. "I still can't really believe we lost it."