Day 614: Are You Ready For Some (Controversial) Football?

originally published September 5, 2013

There are 214 days between February 3 and September 5. This represents the passage of time between Super Bowl XLVII and tonight, the opening kickoff of the 2013 NFL season. For those of us who only feign a passing interest in other sports, who know that special splash of cold beer in front of football has a flavor all its own, who treasure our sacred jerseys even when they no longer fit us properly, it has been a long wait.

And today, as 106 players prepare themselves physically and mentally to determine who – the Baltimore Ravens or the Denver Broncos – will start the season with a win, I begin my extensive regimen of thumb stretches, gearing up for the manic blast of Sunday, when the responsibility falls solely upon me to flip effectively through more than a half-dozen simultaneous contests. It’s a lot of work, but I’ve been keeping in shape for it. I doubt I’ll pull or strain anything.

I thought it would be a good idea to welcome the 2013 season with a look at some of the controversial calls over the past few decades of football. Here’s hoping we don’t add to this list this year, or if we do, that the calls go against the inherently evil New England Patriots.

Twenty-two seconds left, the Pittsburgh Steelers are trailing the Oakland Raiders 7-6 in a 1972 AFC Wild Card game, first week of the playoffs. The Steelers have never won a playoff game, and have been the league’s basement pigs for most of their forty years. Terry Bradshaw throws to John Fuqua who gets leveled by Raiders safety Jack Tatum before he can make the catch. The ball flutters through the air, Steelers’ halfback Franco Harris scoops it up and runs in for the win. They called it the Immaculate Reception.

But was it? Under the rules at the time, if Fuqua touched the ball then he’s the only one allowed to catch it. If Tatum made contact then yes, it was fair game for Franco Harris to step in. There was no instant replay review back then, but referee Fred Swearingen made the gutsy call to give the win to Pittsburgh. Fortunately, numerous close examinations since then have backed Swearingen’s decision, and the silly rule about who can make the catch after the ball gets deflected was yanked in 1978.

After all, don’t we all want to see more wild catches like this one?

The Steelers didn’t make it to the Super Bowl that year, but that playoff win was the spark that impelled their 70’s-era dynasty of four championships in six years. Yet that fourth win came by the grace of a controversial call that should have gone the other way.

The 1979 AFC Championship saw the Houston Oilers trailing the Steelers 17-10 late in the third quarter. Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini lobbed a pass to Mike Renfro, who tapped his feet inbounds and made a magnificent catch. Except the refs ruled him out, and the concept of replay review was still seven years in the future. Everyone watching at home could see Renfro had scored, but the folks whose opinion mattered were saying it was a no-go.

Sure, Pittsburgh scored another touchdown, so maybe they would have won 24-17 instead of 24-10 – who cares? Except maybe they wouldn’t have. That fourth quarter would have had a much different flavor had it begun in a tie.

Did Bert Emmanuel make that catch, even though the ball hit the ground? If so, we’d have seen the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play against the Tennessee Titans in the 1999 season’s Super Bowl. The refs said no – it touched the ground, it’s incomplete. There were 47 seconds left and the Bucs – who were down 11-6 – were deep in the St. Louis Rams’ zone. A catch would mean a much shorter reach to paydirt and a trip to the big game.

The rules have since been changed, in fact they call it the Bert Emmanuel Rule. If a ball touches the ground mid-catch, so long as the receiver maintains possession it’s a catch. If only that had been the case in January of 2000.

Keep in mind, the Titans only made the Super Bowl that year because of another controversial play: the Music City Miracle.

This one still itches under my skin.

The Raiders had the lead in their 2001 playoff game against the evil Patriots. Tom “Vader” Brady pump-faked a pass, then as he was pulling the ball back to his body, he was hit. He fumbled. The Raiders recovered. End of story.

Except it totally wasn’t. According to the ‘Tuck Rule’ of 1999, even if the quarterback is pulling the ball back to his body, it’s considered a forward pass – not a fumble – if it comes out. The Patriots maintained possession, then finished the drive to win the game so that coach Bill “Emperor Palpatine” Belichick could practice his illegal videotaping-the-other-team’s-practice hobby to beat the Rams in the Super Bowl.

On March 20th of this year, the Tuck Rule was determined by a vote of 29-1 to have been a stupid idea, and was put on the shelf forever. Good riddance.

Don’t even get me started on the officiating in Super Bowl XL. The Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks, but there were so many iffy calls, even referee Bill Leavy issued an apology to the Seahawks organization for having botched it. I still maintain that the Steelers were the better team anyway, so I haven’t lost sleep over this one.

This is the rule: if two players catch the ball at the same time, possession is awarded to the guy on offense. Using this guideline, Seattle’s Golden Tate gets the catch (and the touchdown, and the win), and Green Bay Packers’ defender M.D. Jennings is out of luck. Which is exactly how it was called, at least by one of the confused replacement refs in that photo. Keep in mind, the actual refs were on strike during the first portion of the 2012 season.

I have been yelled at online for my feelings about this play, but I’ve watched the same replay as everyone else and I am still convinced that Tate’s one hand on the ball does not constitute possession. This should have been an interception, and the idiot with his hands above his head in that photo was wrong. The only good news is that this play convinced the NFL to settle with the real refs and end the strike that week.

I’m really hoping we don’t see any calls worthy of this list in 2013. I’m only exercising my thumbs for the season; I’m not sure my heart is up for it.

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