As Tennessee tight end Frank Wycheck got dressed in the Titans' locker room early Saturday evening, team owner Bud Adams wandered over to his cubicle to shake his hand and offer heartfelt thanks to the former Maryland player who had just helped save the day.
"That's the second-best pass you've thrown this year," Adams winked, referring to a 61-yard touchdown throw Wycheck completed Dec. 19 against Atlanta. But Saturday in Nashville, Wycheck made one of the greatest and most controversial passes in the history of the game when he threw across the field to Kevin Dyson with 16 seconds left in a first-round AFC playoff game. Dyson took the ball and made a 75-yard touchdown run for the ages, giving the Titans a stunning 22-16 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
The Titans, 9-0 at home this year, now will go on the road to play Indianapolis. Injuries already are a concern: Wycheck sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee and is questionable, running back Eddie George has a slight concussion and a strained neck and ankle, and punter Craig Hentrich has a strained neck.
Should the Titans somehow make it to their first Super Bowl in franchise history, their appearance also may be somewhat tainted. The debate goes on as to whether Wycheck's pass was a perfectly legal lateral, as the Titans believe, or an illegal forward pass, as the Bills will argue until eternity.
Instant replay was used by referee Phil Luckett to review the play, and he confirmed the initial on-field ruling made by line judge Byron Boston. Both officials have been at the center of controversy before.
Luckett was the referee involved in a botched coin toss in 1998 in a Thanksgiving Day game between Detroit and Pittsburgh. Later that season, his crew ruled that the New York Jets' Vinny Testaverde had scored a game-winning touchdown when replays clearly indicated he had been stopped short. That play, and several others, prompted owners to approve instant replay for use this season.
Boston is the father of Arizona wide receiver David Boston and the subject of comments earlier this season by Washington Redskins receiver Michael Westbrook, who questioned whether Boston should have been assigned to a Washington game when his son's team was competing with the Redskins for a playoff spot. The league is likely to address Boston's assignments in the offseason, as well as take another vote on replay in March.
The owners will be hard-pressed to get the support of Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson, who voted for replay last spring after years of opposing it. Wilson was not happy Saturday, though he admitted that complaining to the league office would be a waste of time and probably would result in a fine if he complained publicly about the officials' ruling and the game's outcome.
Wilson might be wise to ask his head coach, Wade Phillips, about the strategy on the final, decisive kickoff, a short, high kick that was fielded at the 25-yard line. Titans Coach Jeff Fisher said he was anticipating a squib kick that likely would have cost his team time. Others wondered why place kicker Steve Christie didn't blast the ball deep toward the end zone to force the Titans to take the kickoff between 90 and 100 yards to win the game.
Certainly the odds would have been with the Bills on such a strategy. Dyson's return marked the first time in league history a kickoff return for a touchdown in the final minute of play had ever settled a playoff game.
Phillips's explanation for the kickoff was that he did not want to put the ball in the hands of the Titans' best return men. However, Tennessee's usual kick returner, Derrick Mason, was on the bench, still woozy from a slight concussion suffered on a third-quarter punt return, and backup Anthony Dorsett was being treated for cramps.
"We wanted to kick it high and short where they didn't have the timing on the play where you wouldn't kick it deep," Phillips said. "The guy ran over there and threw it back and the guy on the other side broke out. . . . Our coverage broke down."
Second-guessers also will continue to question Phillips's decision to bench quarterback Doug Flutie--the man who led the Bills to 10 regular season victories--in favor of starting Rob Johnson. Johnson struggled against a Tennessee defense that the more mobile Flutie might have been able to elude more successfully. Johnson was sacked six times, including once for a fumble and once for a safety.
"I thought we could win with either quarterback and thought we certainly could have won with Rob," Phillips said. ". . . After the offensive line settled down, I thought he made some good plays."
Regardless of a different outcome had Flutie led the Bills, his teammates would have preferred almost any ending to the one they got.
"I'm no whiner," said Buffalo defensive end Marcellus Wiley, "but you're supposed to lose because you got beat. I guess if they [game officials] mess up, they get to call the AFC wild card game. They messed this game up. I guess they'll get the Super Bowl.
"I know I'm getting fined, and I'm not the richest man on the team. They'll take [the money] before I even see it. But I've been playing football since I was 8 years old and this happens. I don't even want to play football again. We didn't get beat, we got taken. This is the worst feeling I've ever had."