Emotion wins over reason again, which means we'll wait a few paragraphs to scold Don Shula for acting the way ordinary coaches do under intense pressure. First some San Diego silliness that matched, in its fashion, the Chargers' victory over Miami in the AFC playoffs. That was one of those rare, emotional binges in sport during which a team rallies from being ahead to win.
And 1,500 miles away, The Associated Press reported, the Chargers charged their fans in a way that caused:
A wedding reception for Phillip Folse and Susan Griffin to come to a halt during the wild, overtime finish. It was the bride who demanded a television be present for the celebration, the new Mrs. Folse saying: "I told him I wasn't going to have the reception unless there was a TV there to watch the game."
At the San Diego County Jail, where 787 inmates watched the game, "thunderous roars poured from the cells." The jailer, Ted Bear, added: "No incidents, but the building tilted back and forth a few times."
A power outage forced one Charger fan to improvise. Cloyd McConnaughey and his family watched the game outside, in wind and cold rain, after hooking the television to a car battery.
The game was worth whatever extraordinary effort it took to watch. There were 11 playoff records set, none of them involving defense. No team in the history of the NFL playoffs ever rallied from 24 points down and won, as the Dolphins appeared to be doing in the final moments of regulation.
When the Chargers got that 24-0 lead in the first quarter, the most concerned man in the Orange Bowl was not necessarily a Dolphin. Jack Pardee, the Chargers' defensive coordinator, knew that hardly was a worry-free spot, that 24-0 going into the final quarter might not be enough.
"I said after we got up that much it'd come down to something like this," Pardee said on the field seconds after Rolf Benirschke's field goal in the 14th minute of overtime. "We got all our breaks early; they had theirs the rest of the game."
The biggest one during regulation seemed to come on the final play of the first half, when Shula called for a pass-catch-lateral that dumbfounded the Chargers. Instead of trying a pass for position for a field goal from the San Diego 40 with six seconds left, Shula tried a go-for-it-all sandlot maneuver.
Backup quarterback Don Strock, a completion machine until it mattered most, whipped a chest-high pass to Duriel Harris at the 25. Harris caught it, then lateraled the ball to the trailing Tony Nathan almost in one motion. So free was Nathan near the right sideline that he held the ball over his head in joy 15 yards from the end zone.
The Chargers still had the lead, 24-17; Miami seemed in charge of the game, an impression that was verified immediately after halftime. The Dolphins received, and drove 74 yards for the tying touchdown in eight plays. San Diego was self-destructing; the game suddenly was the Dolphins' to win or lose.
They lost it.
The cold, day-after reality in Miami is that if Andra Franklin had not fumbled on second down from the Charger 21, the Dolphins surely would have pulled off the most remarkable comeback in NFL playoff history. Down, 24-0, after the first quarter, they would have won going away.
Leading by seven points, they were in position both to score and waste enough time for even the pass-mad Chargers to be doomed. Franklin fumbled, the Chargers recovered and drove 82 yards. They scored, but too soon. The Dolphins rushed back downfield for the winning field goal, but stopped charging too soon.
Kellen Winslow might well have blocked Uwe von Schamann's effort from wherever he tried it, from 33 or 23 yards as well as 43. But in the final 23 seconds, Shula was struck by the same burst of timidity that afflicts so many coaches at every level under his nearly unique perch.
At such tense times, coaches for some inexplicable reason make field goals as difficult as possible. It's as though they want to transfer the immense pressure from their own shoulders to their kickers'. I got him to within his distance, the coach's postgame alibi in his own mind might go, and the so-and-so went out and blew it.
Forty-three yards is within von Schamann's range, although barely. Shula went from solidifying his reputation for daring and clear thinking in the heat of battle on the last play of the half to playing the last 23 seconds of the game as if he were uncertain about what to do, if not quite scared.
Twenty-three seconds can be an eternity in the NFL, time for at least two safe passes before using the final timeout. Instead of pushing the ball toward the end zone from the Charger 25, instead of giving poor von Schamann the easiest possible chance, the Dolphins threw away 19 precious seconds. Doing nothing but watching it, they let the clock tick away before stopping it with four seconds left.
Perhaps this is the kicker's punishment for not being a real football player, for not having his uniform soiled and for having all his bones in the proper places after each game. Only kickers' minds get shattered.