So one of the NFL's best officials blew another one. Films show, and even the ball carrier agrees, that Denver fumbled the football away to Oakland only two yards short of a touchdown. But head linesman Ed Marion, in his 18th year at this impossible job, said it was no fumble. Denver kept the ball. Next play it scored a touchdown. By three points, 20-17, Denver won. The Raiders said a lot of bad words.
It need be said quickly that the Broncos are not the American Football Conference champion by fluke. They go into the Super Bowl not because Marion made a mistake. They go because they made the plays. They go because their gazelle of a wide receiver. Haven Moses, caught passes while leaping, diving and flying. And Denver's defense stole the ball to set up two little-bitty scoring drives of 17 yards.
Yet Denver won by three points and Marion's mistake may have been worth 14 points. That's because a correct call would have said Rob Lytle fumbled the second he was hit by Oakland safety Jack Tatum. Not only that, Oakland lineman Mike McCoy picked up the loose ball and went running the other way, 30 yards ahead of everybody, headed, if slowly, for a touchdown.
"And then I saw that they'd blown it dead," McCoy said, "I couldn't believe it."
It was first and goal at the Oakland two-yard line with about 8 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter. Denver led, 7-3. On the television replays, you saw Lytle take the handoff up the middle. Immediately, Tatum struck Tytle, helmet to chin. The ball came loose, falling straight down. McCoy was off to glory.
Then confusion arrived. No fumble, the officials said. Denver's ball, they said. In the press box, Al Davis, the big boss of the Raiders, said "What's going on here?" he said it very loudly. About seven chairs away, Peter Rozelle, the big boss of the National Football League, did a wonderful impression of a deaf man.
After Denver scored, Rozelle was seen in confidential conversation with two or three of his helpers. About 15 minutes later, an announcement was made in the press box. The head linesman, Marion, said Lytle's forward progress had been stopped and he was being pushed back when the ball came loose. That is what the announcement said. Now, Marion probably takes in homeless puppies, but even a sweet old grandfather can't get away with that explanation.
He blew it. "Sure, I fumbled," Lytle said, "but the officials probably couldn't see it in there" - and it may have cost the Raiders a chance to win a second straight Super Bowl, to say nothing of, oh, maybe $35,000 a man.
Small wonder, then, that the Raiders turned their locker room air blue with expletives, epithers and ancestral insults. Those words are changed in the next few paragraphs, but you are free to imagine the verbs and adjectives of your choice. Listen first to jack Tatum.
"Tell the kindly commisioner to start fining his nifty referees. They're the ones messing up." Three weeks ago, an official blew a quick whistle as Baltimore Bert Jones fumbled inside the New England five-yard line. Television replays showed his forward progress had not been stopped. A touchdown a few seconds later won for Baltimore and put Miami out of the playoffs.
Neal Coizie, an Oakland safety "What a beautiful way to lose a championship. The saintly referees are scared."
John Madden, the Oakland coach, said nothing we can't repeat. He did his best to be a man about it. He said Denver had a great defense. He said the Broncos earned the championship. Moses made the plays, he said. And Madden went on being nice until somebody brought up the unfumble.
"Hell, yess, it was a fumble," he said. "How can it not be a fumble when one of my guys comes out of there with it (the ball) like that.?How can they say the forward progress was stopped? But, listen, I don't want to get into it. That sounds like sour grapes.
McCoy, the lineman who unrecovered the unfumble: "I hit somebody at the line, and all of a sudden, the ball was there in my hands. I just took off. I never heard a whistle until I was 30 yards downfield."
Buck to Madden, who sat looking at a television set. On the screen was another showing of the unfumble. "I'm not saying anything else. But look at that. Twenty million people saw it. Let them make their own judgments."
Pat Toomay, a defensive end for the Ratlers, said. "The officials were still looking for the ball and McCoy was running with it at the 40-yard line. Stopped the forward progress."
Al Davis, in the Oatland locker room, said he wasn't upset with the officials mistake. Officials are human he said gently. He wasn't criticizing Marion. It's a tough job and it has to be done by men. No instant replays. it has to be a decision made by a fallible man.
"But they say things as if we were ever loving idiots." Davis said.
By "they", it is presumed Davis spoke of Rozzelle, the NFL commissioner, and the commissioner's helpers, because Davis went on to say, "The point is, these mistakes happen. But what I don't like is when they come up with poliy explanations. The big lie . . . They sent one of their tuys down and told the official what the ruling ought to be."
Translation: Davis was suggesting that Rozzele, in the press box, sent a man to to the field to give Marion the "official" explanation of his won ruling.
Jim Heffernan, Public relations director of the NFL, denied that. He said Rozzelle sent him to the field where he asked alternate official Bernie Ulman to obtain from Marion an explanation. "The commissioner then told me to type it up and announce it in the press box," Heffernan said.
That has the ring of truth to it. To bad Marion didn't simply say he made a mistake. Sorry, fellows.