January 07, 2003
League says refs erred in not calling pass interference on final FG attempt
Brian Murphy, Chronicle Staff Writer
So, about that epic 49ers playoff win over the New York Giants on Sunday: Was it The Great Comeback, or The Great Escape?
With cheers from the ecstatic 49ers faithful still ringing in the Bay Area on Monday, the NFL office in New York issued a statement saying the officials blew the final call of the game, and the Giants should have been given another try at a 41-yard field goal to win it.
NFL director of officials Mike Pereira said the crew should have called pass interference on 49ers defensive end Chike Okeafor when he made contact with Rich Seubert, No. 69 of the Giants. Seubert, a guard by trade, had reported and lined up as an eligible receiver. The officiating crew, headed by referee Ron Winter, correctly called No. 65 of the Giants, lineman Tam Hopkins, for being an illegal receiver downfield.
With infractions by both teams, the league said, the penalties would have offset, giving the Giants one more play.
"Although time had expired, a game cannot end with offsetting penalties," the league said. "Thus, the game would have been extended by one untimed down."
Translation: The Giants could have tried another field goal.
Further translation: The greatest comeback in 49ers history just got juicier.
Asked what he told Pereira when Pereira called him Monday morning, 49ers coach Steve Mariucci shrugged and issued a sarcastic, one-word, only-in- California answer that surely will resound throughout New York all winter: "Bummer."
In New York, reaction was mixed. The always-entertaining tabloid New York Post howled to the heavens, and planned to run "WE WUZ ROBBED" as its front- page headline Tuesday. Other New Yorkers didn't pin the blame on the final play. Instead, they wondered how their beloved Giants blew a 38-14 lead with just more than 19 minutes left in the game.
"It's a bitter pill to swallow, but I don't think the officials built the 24-point lead for us, and the officials didn't take it away," Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi told ESPN. "We lost the game because we didn't do things right in the second half."
Giants coach Jim Fassel didn't tell his team the league would issue the statement, for fear of letting the players wallow too much, or use it as an excuse, according to reporters who cover the team. Instead, Fassel faced the press and spat out a terse comment.
"It's very disappointing," Fassel said. "It's part of what you have to live with. Do I like it? Absolutely not."
Callers to New York sports-talk radio, typically passionate, were not focused on the blown call, WEVD producer Kristina Ferrara said. Instead, she said, they wondered how it all got away, and whom to blame for the way the team played down the stretch.
"Most of our callers have been debating whether or not we should keep Fassel as a coach," Ferrara said.
The 49ers, meanwhile, behaved as one might expect. Some sported cat-ate-the- canary grins. Some shrugged. All refused to apologize for the team's historic charge to victory, the second-greatest playoff comeback in NFL history.
"Woulda, coulda, shoulda," said Okeafor, who appeared unsure how to handle his spot in the controversy. As for the statement from the NFL, he said: "Well, we ain't playing the game today. We played it yesterday."
Other players thought the team had been robbed earlier in the Giants' final drive, when it appeared cornerback Ahmed Plummer made an interception that was ruled an incompletion. Field judge Bill Lovett was ready to call Plummer's play an interception, giving the 49ers the ball and the game with 22 seconds left. Lovett was overturned by line judge Carl Johnson. Jeremy Newberry, the outspoken 49ers center, thinks that call should get attention, too -- even though replays show Plummer probably never had control of the ball.
"Well, tell them they blew two calls," Newberry said. "There was an interception. . . . We won the game. We made more plays than they did."
Besides, said Newberry, the league admits to mistakes every week.
"Week in and week out, they send us a memo saying they blew this call or saying there should have been a holding call," Newberry said. "You get some and you give some. The refs aren't perfect."
Why, then, did the league make such a public show of its error this time? That question was raised, with the accompanying conspiracy theory: The league office, after all, is in New York. . . .
"And I think the Giants play in New York, too," Newberry said.
Still, some inside the 49ers' organization knew they got away with one. Special-teams coach Bruce DeHaven used to coach special teams at Buffalo, and was on the losing end of one of the league's most dramatic, debated plays, the "Music City Miracle." In that January 2000 playoff game, the Tennessee Titans won with a kickoff return that involved a questionable lateral, a play DeHaven and all Buffalo fans believe was an illegal forward pass.
So, when DeHaven saw Okeafor nearly tackle Seubert, and saw flags fly, he gulped hard.
"My only thought was that we were going to have to replay it," DeHaven said.
"I also felt pretty sure he may have interfered."
Review of the play, however, shows three flags were thrown. Both Johnson and head linesman George Hayward indicated to Winter they were calling Hopkins an ineligible receiver downfield by patting the top of their heads. Winter announced to the stadium that the call was for ineligible receiver, and the game was over.
At no time did the officials indicate that Okeafor interfered with Seubert, though Seubert gestured for a flag, and Fox commentator Cris Collinsworth said interference should be called. But, by then, ecstatic players and sideline observers rushed the field, a bit of home-stadium theater that likely aided the 49ers' chances.
"It probably didn't hurt our cause that 500 people ran on the field," DeHaven said.
Pereira was in attendance at the game, and according to ESPN, told back judge Scott Green that Green should have called pass interference. Green told Pereira that he thought Seubert was the ineligible receiver downfield, part of the mistake the league tried to rectify with the statement Monday.
Mariucci, too, admitted he thought the 49ers would be called for interference.
"The first thought that went through my mind is that it was pass interference on the 5-yard line for a chip-shot field goal," the coach said.
And what would he have done then?
"Then it's 'Block that kick!' " Mariucci said. "That would be the plan."
Back inside the locker room, defensive end John Engelberger spoke for the majority when he said: "F-- it. It's over now."
Said Mariucci: "That's the way it goes. That's the way they ruled it. Officials do the best they can, and just like in coaching and playing, in officiating, there's never going to be a perfect game. We all make mistakes, and you do the best you can. . . . Some (breaks) go your way, some the other way. The longer you're in it, the more it evens out."
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