Untold stories of the wild-card wars
Posted: Thursday January 07, 1999 12:08 PM
Got a question or comment for Dr. Z? Click here.
I wish I had some scintillating type of handicapping for you for the second round of playoff action, but -- and this is from the donkey who said that Dallas-Arizona was easiest game on the board to predict -- I can only see overlays winning. In other words, I favor all the people who had the byes, and that doesn't make for the kind of reading I feel you deserve. And sooooooo, after that rather wordy preamble, let me dip back into last weekend's wild-card action and mention some of the things that struck me, a few of which might not have been given their due notation.
I saw a few newspaper stories that actually led with the controversial call on Andre Reed's catch at the end of the Buffalo-Miami game, or at least incorporated it into their leads or did a special sidebar on it. In other words, it was big.
Yet the weekend's biggest call -- in this case a non-call -- got only cursory treatment. It was, of course, the ruling that Jerry Rice did not fumble the game away in the dying seconds of the San Francisco-Green Bay game. The Reed ruling, that he was down by contact instead of in the end zone, was close. Could have gone either way. The Rice thing was a flat-out blown call. He fumbled. Period.
Why the disparity in coverage? Call this a lesson in Journalism 101, from one who worked the pro football beat for a daily paper for many years. Bills-Dolphins was an extremely difficult piece to write, especially on deadline, because you don't know where to go with your lead. Too many things happened in the game, too many angles, all of them, unfortunately, negative. En fin: Cinderella's slipper doesn't fit. Doug Flutie fumbles. The Bills lose four fumbles, after losing only six all year.
The Dolphins abusing the box of Flutie Flakes in the locker room? Yeah, I guess that'll hold up as a lead angle, if you want to ignore the game for a while. The call, and Reed's subsequent ejection? Ah, yes, that's the easiest angle of all of them. Let's go with it.
But if you look at the end of that game you realize that it was a significant moment but not a decisive one. Say Reed scores the TD and the Bills wind up with seven instead of the three they eventually got. Then they're down by three points with around two minutes to go. They've got to try an onside kick. Their defense is exhausted. The onside kick they actually attempted bounced off Sam Madison's hands and was recovered by Kurt Schulz, but who's to say that they would have gotten the hypothetical one we're setting up now? It's a high-risk play at best.
OK, let's say the Bills get it. Maybe they get a TD and win. More likely they get a field goal and the game goes into OT. If Miami wins the coin toss, I feel the Dolphins score. They'd punished the weary Buffalo defense on their last three possessions, three long, grinding, scoring drives. If the Bills call the toss correctly, they probably score, who knows? See, the whole thing is wildly hypothetical, which makes the call on Reed's play important but not definitive. Still, it got the heavy coverage.
Now we go to Niners-Packers. Terrell Owens was everybody's angle -- anguish to joy, despair followed by redemption. Easy as pie. Just get out your Roget's and let 'er rip. You say you want to clutter up that pretty lead with the Rice thing? Puh-leeze. You can mention it lower down, but don't let a meaningful fact destroy the majesty of the writing, especially when all the competition is soaring to journalistic heights.
The New York Times is the arbiter of taste in my part of the world. In its Buffalo-Miami coverage it devoted an entire piece to the Reed call, identifying the official involved, etc. Granted, it was on an inside page, but it got the full treatment.
Monday's Times piece on San Francisco-Green Bay led with a dramatically drawn depiction of the Owens play, very nicely written, etc. The story ran 26 paragraphs. In paragraph No. 22 were the following two sentences, the only mention that the Rice play got: "Young passed to Rice for a 6-yard gain to the Green Bay 41. Replays showed that Rice fumbled when he was hit, but the fumble was not called."
Huh? Am I crazy, or what? Of course he fumbled, and of course the official, line judge Jeff Bergman , who was right on the play, blew it, and of course you have to ask yourself if an obscure official chickened out of making a game-ending call on one of San Francisco's greatest stars in history, in front of a home crowd. There have been many significant screwups by officials this season -- all of you know the sad list -- but let's examine the importance of this one and how many lives it affected.
Here's what happens if the right call is made:
The Packers win the game, since only 25 seconds remain. Rice, on the only pass he's caught, blows it. Bay Area papers begin asking the question -- Is this the end for him?
Owens has to live with his misery during the entire offseason. Four drops, one fumble. He becomes one of the greatest goats in San Francisco history. How does this affect his personality, his faith in the Lord, which he mentioned so forcefully in his post-game on-camera interview? Does this lead to an abandonment of religious conviction in general in the Bay Area, or possibly the formation of a new religion, which has been known to happen in parts of California, especially with the millennium approaching?
Green Bay goes on to play in Atlanta. A Packers win and Mike Holmgren's bargaining power goes way, way up. Instead of spending early January sifting through possible new positions, he's getting his team ready for the Falcons, the Vikings, the Super Bowl, who knows what? Jobs are filled. His career is altered.
Steve Mariucci? He's blown the playoff game to Green Bay. The rumors that he's out grow teeth. Instead of looking at Falcons footage right now, he's checking the real estate listings for Green Bay or Chicago or Cleveland.
I could go on and on. But, OK, we've belabored this long enough. Let's return to Buffalo-Miami for one more angle.
Last play of the game for Buffalo. Bills have first-and-goal at the Miami five, 17 seconds left. Trace Armstrong, the defensive left end, comes barreling into Flutie, who has taken a short drop and has held the ball one tick too long. Armstrong forces a fumble and the game's over. How did Armstrong get in so quickly, your faithful narrator asks. I replay the tape. Jerry Ostroski, the right tackle who normally would take Armstrong, has blocked to his inside, doubling on the defensive tackle and leaving Armstrong for Thurman Thomas, the remaining back. No contest. Armstrong rolls right over him. Makes no sense, leaving a 270-pound DE for a halfback, even though it might have been some kind of scheme devised for a quick drop. My guess is that it was a foul-up.
I can't help feeling that if Kent Hull , the center who retired two years ago, were still around, this never would have happened. Hull's greatness as a player and a leader on the field (I will be his most vehement supporter when he comes up for Hall of Fame nomination in a few years) was that he made all the line calls and kept things kosher. You ever watch Minnesota center Jeff Christy? He's always looking around and raising an arm or two and making sure that everyone's on the same page, blockingwise. That's what an All-Pro center does. That's what Buffalo needed, a guy who wouldn't permit the kind of screw-up that cost his team the game.
Miami shocked me with its ability to run the ball. In my forecast I said a lot of smirky things about how they could forget it on the ground. Yeah. So who am I mad at now? Ted Washington , the former All-Pro, 325- or 350- or 370-pound (true figures are hard to obtain) noseguard for the Bills. At one time he ranked with the 49ers' Bryant Young as the best interior defensive linemen in the business. The Dolphins made him their pigeon, and he isn't even a three-down player. He comes out in long-yardage downs. Every time I looked up he was sucking wind on the sidelines, or getting blocked. Maybe it was that huge contract he signed, or something. I'll tell you, I'm really rough on guys who screw up my predictions.
Which brings us to the Dallas Cowboys. What a sorry show they put on against the Cardinals. Every playoff team that lost last weekend, except the Cowboys, went down fighting. Green Bay and Buffalo, of course. Even the Patriots, with a second-string QB and other key injuries, came out smoking in the second half after they'd played like zombies before the intermission. They showed some spirit.
The Cowboys played like dogs. Everybody's been copping out on them, myself included, in the latter part of the season. Lack of passion. Flat. All the euphemisms for what no one wants to say, because these are proud athletes at the professional level. Or should be. How about no guts?
How can it be anything else? Maybe it's got something to do with their conditioning? They don't seem to have much oomph in the late going. They trailed in six games this season (counting the playoff), going into the fourth quarter, and they lost all six. In a seventh, the Bears came from behind and beat them. They're front-runners who simply can't come back and make a run at anybody.
Does Chan Gailey clean house and start unloading -- or trading, if he can find anyone to trade with -- some superstars, beginning with Michael Irvin, who can't seem to shake tight coverage, and right tackle Erik Williams, who can't seem to go the full 60 anymore? Don't know, but it's a serious and deep-seated problem.
Got a question or comment for Dr. Z? Click here.
Copyright © 1999 CNN/SI. A Time Warner Company.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.