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"Hell, I had it all the way," Renfro said. "I wasn't juggling it. There was no argument on that, none at all."
When in doubt call "no possession." A week earlier a no-possession call had robbed Tampa Bay Tight End Jimmie Giles of a touchdown in the Bucs' win over Philadelphia, the single worst call of the playoffs until...Now it cost Houston the tying score.
"Gutless, the call was just gutless," said Houston Assistant General Manager Pat Peppier. "I can figure bad calls, but this was just gutless. The guy just stood around looking for help."
Orr could not be reached for comment. The NFL does not allow its officials to be interviewed by the press en masse. Presidents and popes can face press conferences, but never an NFL official. Instead, a pool reporter, Vito Stellino of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , was dispatched to the officials' room for the official verdict. Jim Tunney, the referee in charge, took him into the washroom off the officials' dressing room and told him the receiver did not have possession. He talked into a tape recorder—for the record.
Tunney was asked whether Renfro had juggled the ball. A juggling ruling would have resulted in a sign from an official—two hands up and down, quick time. Nobody had signaled that, neither Orr nor O'Brien, the only officials in position to see the ball. "The ruling was no possession," Tunney repeated. End of interview. A corporate decision, arrived at by huddle method.
"I couldn't see whether he was in-bounds or not," Phillips said. "I couldn't tell whether he juggled the ball or not. That's not important. The big problem is that the officials who work the playoffs have no experience working together as a crew. I've been telling them all year that one complete team should be chosen to work a playoff game, then one guy'll be used to covering for another, and they won't have problems like this. But instead, individual officials are picked, and each one feels, 'Well, if I keep my nose clean and don't make a mistake, then I'm still a good official.' No one helps the other guy.
"It would be like a team making the playoffs, and then when they get there, an all-star team goes out on the field."
Fifty-six different officials worked the eight playoff games the past three weeks. No official worked more than one. An all-star cast will be assembled for the Super Bowl, a team of people with no experience working together. "If you sent complete officiating teams into the playoffs, then some good officials might not make it," says Art McNally, the NFL's Supervisor of Officials. "This system rewards our better officials."
But not the fans. And not the teams on the field. So Houston settled for a field goal on the series—and the short end of a 17-13 score, not a 17-17 tie—and Pittsburgh came back to score 10 points on its two fourth-quarter possessions to wrap up the game.
"You have to ask the rhetorical question," Swann said, "just like in the last Super Bowl when we got the benefit of an official's call against Dallas. Wouldn't we have come back and played well enough to score again and win it? I think we would have."