'I'll Hold It Tighter Next Time'

Buccaneers tight end Alex Smith, left, wants a touchdown called as teammate Chris Hovan reacts to the controversial ruling.
Buccaneers tight end Alex Smith, left, wants a touchdown called as teammate Chris Hovan reacts to the controversial ruling. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 8, 2006

TAMPA, Jan. 7 -- He was going to save this game. No doubt. Edell Shepherd knew as much as he looked into the blackened sky and saw the most beautiful pass dropping from the heavens. Somewhere, Washington Redskins cornerback Carlos Rogers was reaching toward Shepherd's back. But this seemed inconsequential to Shepherd in the moment that was going to make him the most loved man in all of Tampa.

He felt the ball lock in his hands, saw the ground and goal post and maroon of the end zone paint fly toward his face and felt a joy few have known. Touchdown! The score was about to be tied, 65,514 were dancing in the aisles and Shepherd, Tampa Bay Buccaneers hero, headed off to join them.

"Definitely" he caught it, he would later say.

Sure, he had left the ball on the ground after his score. But there wasn't a doubt. Right? He had scored, of this he was sure. So sure that he hoisted himself onto the wall at the edge of Section 121 at Raymond James Stadium and screamed into the faces that stared back. And he has a very clear memory of those faces. They were smiling. He was smiling.

Then something strange happened. He looked for his teammates, who should have been piling onto the wall behind him. Only they weren't there. He turned around, saw an official pointing to the ground, waving his arms -- no catch. And that's when the best moment of his football life turned very dark.

Later, after the final 2 minutes 55 seconds of this 17-10 Redskins playoff victory had played out, the Buccaneers would still be as confused as they were at that instant when the officials said Shepherd had dropped the ball too soon and in fact would not be saving the day for Tampa Bay.

A replay was requested, the huge scoreboards behind the end zones showed the play over and over. Shepherd appeared to catch the ball, take one, two steps, then had it slip from his hands as he fell to the ground. Surely this stood as a catch. But referee Mike Carey was coming back from the officials' replay machine with a definitive answer.

No catch.

Then this explanation: If you lose control of the ball as you are falling to the ground, then the pass is incomplete.

It broke the Bucs' hearts.

"I told [my teammates] I was about to win the game and I did it," Shepherd said. "Someone else thought different."

"I thought it was close enough to challenge," Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said. "It is what it is."

The call stood, and on third and 10 from the Redskins 35-yard line, it became the most important play in Washington's season -- the closest the Redskins have come in the six weeks to seeing their glorious ride come to an abrupt finish.

And for a moment on the Washington sideline, there pulsed as much fear as there was joy on the other side of the field. Rogers saw Shepherd flash past him ("the guy's fast") and panicked. He had one thought: stick a hand between Shepherd and the ball and hope for the best.

Asked later if he was the one who made Shepherd drop the pass, he shrugged.

"I don't know," he said. "I was fighting for my life trying to get my hand in there."

Then he laughed nervously.

Strangely, the Bucs were not irate in their confusion. Maybe because they understood they have danced around contentious calls all season on their way to the NFC South title. Mike Alstott's two-point conversion at the end of the Bucs' 36-35 win over the Redskins on Nov. 13 was reviewed by the game's replay officials.

A touchdown by Detroit's Marcus Pollard that would have beaten Tampa Bay in Week 4 was overruled when replays showed Pollard to be out of bounds. And on Dec. 24, Atlanta's Roddy White appeared to catch a touchdown pass, only to have the ball pop out of his hands, just like it did with Shepherd. The officials ruled it incomplete. Replays concluded they were right.

"I thought, 'Here we go again,' " Bucs tackle Kenyatta Walker said when asked what went through his mind as the officials headed off to look at Shepherd's play. He smiled. "It's kind of been falling our way this year, but it didn't fall our way tonight."

Or as Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber said more succinctly, "We can't expect to live by the replay and not expect to die by it."

Of course the Bucs still had another chance. And after the play had been reviewed and the players regrouped, Gruden called for another pass to the end zone. Once again Shepherd raced past the Redskins' defenders -- more open than even before. On the other side, Washington cornerback Walt Harris felt his heart drop.

But quarterback Chris Simms could not make two perfect heaves in a row to the end zone. And Harris could see that this time the ball was going to be too far. So did Shepherd, and he watched as it landed harmlessly in the back of the end zone.

"If I had never let [the ball] loose, they wouldn't have replayed it," Shepherd said with some chagrin. "I'll hold it tighter next time."


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