Everybody got it wrong. The Giants blew it, the 49ers blew it, the refs blew it and a few sportswriters blew it when they were writing about who exactly blew it. Nobody got it right on the final play of the 49ers-Giants NFC playoff game, nobody. The NFL, nearly 24 hours after the fact, when it couldn't help the New York Giants one bit, said yesterday one of the classic games in playoff history ended with the zebras making a colossal error.
The Giants should have had another chance to win the game. They should have had the ball at the 49ers 23-yard line with no time left for one more play. Why? Because the officials should have called pass interference against the 49ers for knocking down offensive lineman Rich Seubert, No. 69 on your highlight reel, who was an eligible receiver and in position to catch that desperation pass from the holder, Matt Allen. That penalty would have offset the legitimate penalty called against Giants offensive lineman Tam Hopkins, No. 65 on your highlight reel, who was not an eligible receiver. The offsetting penalties negate the play; by rule the Giants should have gotten one more offensive play.
The NFL playoffs will continue this weekend with a bunch of compelling story lines, but not until this final play of Giants-Niners is thoroughly rehashed. "How they missed that, I don't know why," Giants Coach Jim Fassel said. The Giants, of course, have no recourse. This happens, literally, all the time. Every coach in the league has received a call from the NFL office in New York saying, essentially, "Sorry, our bad. We blew it." But they're not going to put the Giants back on a plane and replay the ending. It's over.
You know what 49ers Coach Steve Mariucci, his job perhaps saved indefinitely by the ending, had to say. "Bummer," was his exact reaction. Not for him, though, 'cause Mooch is taking his boys to Tampa on Sunday.
It's a bummer for me because in yesterday's editions, your friendly neighborhood columnist said holder Matt Allen, who is the punter, should have immediately spiked the ball because it was only third down.
Wrong. Can't do it. A player can only spike a ball if he has taken a hand-to-hand snap from center. A long snap, just like a shotgun snap, does not count. Allen could have intentionally thrown the ball at the feet of an intended receiver, which would have left a second or two on the clock and time for a fourth-down play. But Allen kept his composure, rolled out to his right and threw toward an eligible receiver who had slipped past the defense and very close to the 49ers goal line.
We can conclude two things: One, the zebras blew the call and the NFL did the only thing it can do, which is admit it; two, the Giants shouldn't have blown a 38-14 lead. To quote quarterback Kerry Collins, "It never should have come to that."
There are other dilemmas in Week 2 of the NFL playoffs, starting with the one in Philadelphia, where Donovan McNabb's broken right ankle appears to have healed sufficiently for him to start.
If I'm the coach, I'm staying with A.J. Feeley, who was 4-1 in long relief. The feeling in Philly and most NFL circles is that Andy Reid, my choice for coach of the year, will start McNabb. Reid appears to have been right on every decision he has made the last two seasons, but I'd take my cue from a higher power, Don Shula. There's already a blueprint for Reid to follow, and Shula laid it out 30 years ago in the Dolphins' perfect season.
When Bob Griese broke his right leg in Week 5 of the '72 season and missed 10 weeks, backup Earl Morrall stepped in. He played the rest of the way, kept the perfect season alive with the help of a three-headed rushing attack (Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris), and even started the AFC championship game against the Steelers. With the Dolphins trailing 10-7 in the fourth quarter, Shula went to Griese, who led the Dolphins to a 21-17 victory over the Steelers and a Super Bowl victory over the Redskins.
I'd start Feeley but keep him on a short leash. At the first sign of trouble, I'd go to McNabb, but not until then. But that's me. Jim Mora, the former Saints and Colts coach, said he would start McNabb, the team's best player who is ready to go.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers should be so lucky. Rob Johnson and Shaun King have shown little ability to take up the slack if Brad Johnson is not in the lineup, and Johnson's bruised back could be a big issue. If he isn't up to snuff Sunday against the 49ers, the Buccaneers are in trouble. Johnson should have been voted to the Pro Bowl, though it would be hard to kick off Michael Vick, Brett Favre or Jeff Garcia. Either way, the Bucs' offense is impotent without Brad Johnson.
There's no avoiding these quarterback story lines so far in the postseason. Garcia was Montana-esque in his performance against the Giants. Chad Pennington never seems to make a physical or mental mistake, which is a big reason the Jets are the fashionable pick right now to reach the Super Bowl. How crafty is this kid? His passes are precise, he totally sells play fakes because of his ball-handling skills. Pennington is a right-handed Boomer Esiason. And yet, Pennington won't be the best quarterback in Sunday's Heidi Bowl in Oakland, which still has the MVP in Rich Gannon.
And that's a clear No. 2 quarterback matchup this weekend to Vick vs. McNabb, should he play, in Philly. The Falcons, by the way, have the same puncher's chance in The Vet that they had at Lambeau Field. More people should have seen that one coming because the Packers simply aren't a good team and hadn't been for a few weeks, in part because of injuries; Favre was all they had and when asked to do too much, he always throws too many interceptions.
And besides, Vick and the Falcons were playing with house money. They were winging it from the time the plane landed in Green Bay. This whole postseason is one big free shot for Vick, which makes him even more dangerous.
What a quarterback smorgasbord this weekend's games are. If you like mobile quarterbacks, you can root for Vick, Garcia, Gannon, McNabb and Steve McNair, whose season has been completely overlooked. If you like pocket passers, you can root for Pennington, Johnson, and every underdog's favorite, Tommy Maddox, who we feared a few weeks ago might never play again because of that nasty neck injury.
All the ingredients appear to be there for more comebacks, dramatic finishes, controversies, and if the NFL is lucky, enough great performances that folks outside New York might let the league off the hook for a dubious ending to the first weekend of these playoffs.