The play that cost the Houston Oilers a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Redskins' 16-13 victory Sunday was so controversial that more than one facet of the call is being questioned.
Initially, it was believed that Drew Hill's apparent 16-yard reception with about five minutes remaining in the game, a play that would have put the Oilers in front, 19-16, was disallowed because the diving receiver didn't have both feet in bounds.
However, yesterday at Redskin Park, Charlie Taylor, Redskins public relations director, said the touchdown might have been disallowed because Hill didn't have possession. Taylor said he had been told that Jack Reeder, the NFL assistant supervisor of officials, who watched the game from the press box, commented that the football apparently was touching the ground before Hill dragged his feet inbounds.
Neither Gordon McCarter, the game's head official, nor Reeder could be reached for comment, but the NFL's director of public relations, Jim Heffernan, said that the films of the game wouldn't be viewed by the league office until today.
"When we get the films, they're broken down on a play-by-play basis and each official is graded," Heffernan said yesterday. "If any official's call is incorrect I would guess that his grade for the play wouldn't be a positive one. I'm aware of the criticisms from the game but that play was a judgment call (and wouldn't affect the grading)."
It's difficult to find a rule in the NFL books specifically applicable to Sunday's situation, the closest being Rule 8, Section 1, Article 6, supplemental note five, which states that no pass is completed or intercepted unless both feet of the player alight inbounds. Another addition to the rule states that if a receiver firmly takes hold of a pass in midair but loses possession of the ball when his shoulder hits the ground, the correct ruling is an incomplete pass.
According to a spokesman for the Oilers, Hill and the rest of the team "have brushed the play and the game aside and are trying to go on from here," but Coach Hugh Campbell addressed the issue during a news conference yesterday.
"It appeared to be a fine pass and a fine reception and being a former receiver I'm sorry we didn't get the play," he said. "I'm not in favor of instant replays (being used during games to decide controversial calls), but I was strongly tested on the plane back to Houston."
At Redskin Park, Coach Joe Gibbs still wasn't sure what had transpired, even after viewing the game films. "It was just a tough play," he said. "Our films are looking right down on the play and you'd have to ask if his toes were down on the turf (when Hill caught the ball).
"We had a play against Dallas where Gary Clark was extended while catching a pass (also in the fourth quarter and also an apparent touchdown) and it looked like he was inbounds from the waist down, but it wasn't allowed. I thought that play was black and white, this one was tougher to me. It looked like he held on to the ball."
In the aftermath of Sunday's game, the question of possession or nonpossession of the football never arose, in part because Hill never discussed it, referring only to the question of whether or not his feet were in bounds.
That would lead one to think that his argument with the officials after the play dealt solely with that issue, a train of thought that Heffernan conceded but couldn't confirm. Redskins free safety Curtis Jordan was in the immediate area after the play but said yesterday, "I was so happy that the call went our way that I just walked away.
"Yesterday (Sunday), it looked to me like he had the ball and both feet in bounds but looking at the films today I'm not sure he had possession."
The idea that the hands and not the feet were at issue Sunday brought back bitter memories for the Oilers. "It sounds like the same quote dug out of the Renfro files," said the Houston spokesman, referring to a play from the 1979 AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In the fourth quarter of that game, wide receiver Mike Renfro, now a member of the Dallas Cowboys, had a touchdown reception taken away when it was ruled that he was juggling the ball as he went out of bounds.