The Press Democrat

Controversial call may give team momentum
January 08, 2003

SANTA CLARA - In today's NFL when the level of parity has almost turned into a parody, sometimes this is what a team needs to get it going.

Ask the New England Patriots.

Ask the Tennessee Titans.

Ask the Buffalo Bills.

Heck, ask 49ers special-teams coach Bruce DeHaven, who is the league's version of Forrest Gump -- a man who always seems to be in the middle of NFL playoff history.

DeHaven, 54, was on the sideline Sunday with another eyewitness view of history as the 49ers came clawing back from a 24-point late-third-quarter deficit to overtake the New York Giants, 39-38, with a minute to play.

Then, he watched in horror as defensive lineman Chike Okeafor committed what looked for all the world to be pass interference on the final play of the game. It would have given the Giants an opportunity to try another field goal and, perhaps, end the 49ers' season.

Having been on the good side of the biggest comeback in NFL playoff history and the bad side of one of the league's most bizarre and controversial plays, DeHaven had an experience like many of his fellow children of the '60s.

"I was having a few flashbacks during the ballgame to the game back in Buffalo when we (the Bills) came from behind in the greatest comeback ever.

"There were so many things the same," DeHaven said, comparing the 49ers' late charge against the Giants to the Bills' rally from a 32-point deficit to beat the Houston Oilers, 41-38, nearly 10 years to the day.

"I also had a flashback to that day down in Tennessee when there was a forward lateral across the field and the officials didn't call the forward lateral," DeHaven said.

He hasn't given up on that one, huh?

"No," DeHaven said.

In a 1999 AFC wild-card playoff game, the Bills had taken a 16-15 lead in the final seconds. If DeHaven's unit had made a tackle on the ensuing kickoff, Buffalo would have won the game.

But Tennessee's Frank Wycheck fielded the kickoff and threw a lateral across the field to Kevin Dyson, who raced 75 yards down the left sideline for the winning points. DeHaven contends to this day that the lateral was actually an illegal forward pass.

DeHaven was the fall guy for the "Music City Miracle," getting fired as Buffalo's special-teams coach and ending up with the 49ers.

The Titans rode that momentum into the Super Bowl, where they fell 1-yard short of potentially tying the score on the final play of the game against the St. Louis Rams.

The NFL never admitted that it was a forward lateral, but it did plead guilty on Monday to screwing up the final play of Sunday's 49ers-Giants game.

On the play in question, Okeafor was never called for pass interference on Giants lineman-turned-eligible receiver Rich Seubert after a 41-yard field goal attempt was aborted because of a bad snap.

The officiating crew was apparently so preoccupied with flagging lineman Tam Hopkins for being downfield illegally that it ignored the pass interference. Had the play been called correctly, there would have been offsetting penalties and the Giants would have had another chance to kick the potential game-winning field goal.

The league also never apologized for messing up the notorious "Tuck Rule" call, which was largely responsible last season for New England's playoff victory over the Raiders. Referee Walt Coleman, on a replay challenge, overturned a called fumble, ruling there was indisputable visual evidence to rule it an incomplete pass, giving the Patriots a chance to tie the game late and force overtime.

Of course, the Patriots rode the momentum of that victory to the Super Bowl title.

The 49ers' game Sunday saw a little bit of everything. The 49ers were lucky enough to get some generosity from the officials, but they also created much of their own good fortune when they scored 25 unanswered points to win the game.

DeHaven said there is one major difference between the Bills of last decade that rallied from 32 points down and the 49ers of today.

"We had a veteran team," DeHaven said. "We had a team that had been to two Super Bowls in a row and three conference championship games, something like 10 playoff games, and the team had played together five or six years.

"This is a young team. There are a couple veterans here and there. For them to do something like this, to me, this is even more meaningful than what that Buffalo team did because we had a lot of comeback victories and we expected to win. We just flat-out expected to win every time. This team isn't to this point yet."

The Bills then defeated Pittsburgh and Miami on the road to earn their third straight Super Bowl appearance that season. The 49ers travel to Tampa Bay on Sunday for an NFC divisional playoff game.

Another 49ers victory might result in a trip to Philadelphia for the NFC Championship.

"I felt that game really lifted our confidence," DeHaven said of Buffalo's comeback win.

"I think confidence is one of the most underrated things in the league, particularly with this team being so young. I just think that's got to be a great shot of confidence to come back and do something like that."

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