The play is called "Homerun Throwback." The Tennessee Titans practiced it once a week all season, but they had not used it until late this afternoon, when all seemed lost against the Buffalo Bills. Unveiled with only 16 seconds left on the clock, the play worked to perfection and produced one of the most dramatic and controversial finishes in NFL history.
Kevin Dyson, a wide receiver who had never practiced the play himself, ran 75 yards for a touchdown with what game officials initially ruled, then confirmed by instant replay, was a legal lateral thrown across the field by tight end Frank Wycheck. That improbable score--call it an immaculate deception--allowed the Titans to secure a 22-16 victory over the Bills in a first-round AFC playoff game.
"This play now moves into the number one spot over any others," exultant Tennessee owner Bud Adams said. "I don't think anyone could possibly have thought we could win that football game."
The Bills had gone ahead, 16-15, on Steve Christie's 41-yard field goal with 16 seconds left and were celebrating on the sideline when the Titans went back to receive the ensuing kickoff. Special teams coach Alan Lowry sent Dyson into the game because regular return man Derrick Mason earlier had suffered a slight concussion.
Lowry was still trying to explain "Homerun Throwback" to Dyson as he took the field. As he lined up near the left sideline, teammate Lorenzo Neal told him where to set up and how the play was supposed to work.
Instead of a squib kick or a boomer to the goal line, the Bills strangely elected to hit a high, short kick in hopes of giving defenders more time to get to the football, according to Buffalo Coach Wade Phillips. The ball was fielded by Neal on the right side of the field. He immediately handed it to Wycheck, the former Maryland star who earlier this season had thrown a 61-yard touchdown pass.
Wycheck then threw the ball across the field to Dyson, who caught it and began charging down the left sideline, a bevy of blockers escorting him untouched into the end zone.
But no flags flew as the record crowd of 66,782 rocked Adelphia Coliseum when Dyson scored the touchdown, which seems destined to comparisons with Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris's Immaculate Reception that beat the Oakland Raiders in the final seconds of a 1972 playoff game.
With one difference.
Instant replay was not in effect back then. This time, a replay official in the press box booth signaled that the play looked enough like a forward pass to warrant a review. Referee Phil Luckett, with a cover draped over his head, stared at the replay monitor for what seemed like an eternity, surrounded by a small crowd from both benches and a flock of photographers, before announcing, "After reviewing the play on the field, it was a lateral."
"The line judge's initial ruling was that it was not a forward pass," Luckett told a pool reporter after the game in the officials' locker room. "We went to the instant replay. Taking from where the pass left the passer's hand right on that yard line [the 25], the receiver catches it right there on that yard line. It did not appear to be a forward pass, therefore it is not a foul. . . . We have nothing to prove that it was a forward pass."
Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson, who paid a stiff fine last year for criticizing officiating, said, "I've been around football for sixty years and I've never seen a game like that. . . . If they didn't think it was close, they would not have buzzed down to review it. It's always inconclusive, it's always inconclusive. . . . What good does it do [to complain]? . . . I thought the guy [Dyson] leaned over. I thought he had to lean forward to catch it. But you know how that goes. Inconclusive. Inconclusive."
This much is conclusive: The Titans escaped today with their ninth victory without a loss on their home field, but will have to await the outcome of Sunday's first-round game between Miami and Seattle to learn whether they will play at Jacksonville or Indianapolis next week.
They also know how fortunate they were to survive after squandering a 12-0 halftime lead, converting only 25 percent of their third-down situations and gaining only 194 total yards. They were constantly bailed out by their defense, with rookie Jevon Kearse setting the tone with a fierce pass rush that produced one fumble and another safety and two sacks.
Phillips's decision to start Rob Johnson over Doug Flutie at quarterback seemed sound, especially when Johnson completed a 37-yard pass to set up a second-half touchdown, then moved his team into position in the final 1 minute 48 seconds for Christie's 41-yard field goal to give the Bills their fleeting 16-15 lead.
Then came "Homerun Throwback," a play Wycheck said, "I'll remember for as long as I live. . . . It was a tight throw, and when they reviewed it, I didn't know which way it would go. I thought I at least got it level, or a yard behind."
Said Dyson: "I made sure I got behind [Wycheck]. I took one hard step out to make sure it was a lateral. Once I caught it, I thought, 'Get a touchdown, or good position for a field goal.' I had plenty of time to let the clock run down and just walk in. I had a wall. The only thing left was the kicker, and if I can't outrun the kicker, I shouldn't be in the NFL."
Over in the Buffalo locker room, anger was the obvious emotion of this bitter day, most notably at linebacker Gabe Northern's stall.
"I hope the refs who worked this game, I hope they don't call another game because they might do someone the same way they did us," he said. "That's why the team that plays here is 9-0. They were not the better team."