The Oakland Tribune

Controversy shouldn't overshadow games
January 08, 2003
by Monte Poole

SURELY ONE of the most compelling weekends in football history, a three-day marathon of anxiety and shock and drama, produced exactly the results the games are designed to avoid.

Debates and argument.

Widespread griping and moaning and crying.

Relatively scant acknowledgment of the games themselves -- and way too much needless dwelling on the officiating.

Five games were played last weekend, each with heavy consequences. Each concluded with a jubilant winning team and a devastated losing team. Yet three days after the last play of the fifth game, the officials are the center of attention.

Not because they want to be, but because we -- media and fans -- insist on holding them to the spotlight.

The weekend began with a call officials may or may not have blown Friday night. A call that haunts the Miami Hurricanes, who lost the NCAA national championship game to Ohio State. Hurricanes fans can't let it go.

The weekend ended Sunday on a call NFL officials surely blew, resulting in an amazing 49ers comeback that shoved the New York Giants into the off-season. Gotham weeps.

The NFL compounded New York's depressive state a day later by issuing a statement admitting the officials were wrong. Not only were the Giants wronged, but they were officially screwed by the ineptitude of the officials.

Which only served to send the squabbling into an endless overtime.

Excuse us while we interrupt this outbreak of tear-stained rage with a dose of the truth: The better teams won.

The better team always wins, because it does what it must to avoid defeat.

The 49ers surely received a gift, but they already had taken away a lead the Giants weren't strong enough to hold.

Ohio State deserves not even a virtual asterisk, because the Buckeyes made enough clutch plays on offense to finish off the mighty Hurricanes.

This is all part of the game, part of the lore.

NFL postseasons are filled with moments of controversy, some of which are eternal. The winner advances to play another game, the loser agonizes forever.

Only last season, the Raiders were undone by an official's decision during a divisional playoff game at New England.

Two seasons before that, the bad-luck Buffalo Bills were victimized by a disputed lateral on a kickoff return by the Tennessee Titans.

Fans in Pittsburgh and Oakland surely won't forget the Immaculate Reception that knocked the Raiders out of the playoffs in 1972.

Oilers fans in Houston continue to seethe 23 years after an official ruled receiver Mike Renfro out of bounds -- killing a game-tying touchdown -- though replays showed both feet in the end zone during the '79 AFC Championship Game.

There was Denver running back Rob Lytle's disputed non-fumble that helped the Broncos edge Oakland in the 1977 AFC Championship Game.

This is not to say all the calls were correct. They were not.

But any team convinced victory was stolen by officials needs to pull its collective head out of its armpit.

The Raiders' gripe about the "tuck rule" as it was enforced last January is legitimate. But the officials weren't part of the defense that could not stop New England. In the end, the Raiders simply were not good enough to beat the Patriots.

Same applies to the Giants against the 49ers.

It was Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey who dropped a touchdown pass.

It was Giants safety Shaun Williams who cost his team 30 yards with senseless penalties.

It was Giants long snapper Trey Junkin who botched the snap on the field-goal attempt in the final seconds of the game.

It was Giants kicker Matt Bryant whose 42-yard field-goal attempt only three minutes earlier not only failed but died with the trajectory and distance of a Barry Zito curveball.

Once San Francisco began its comeback, which came without the aid of the stripes, New York's defense could not get off the field. The 49ers won a 39-38 game exactly where such a competitive game should be won -- in the fourth quarter.

Among all the bad calls and non-calls and calls that could have, should have been made, both teams gained exactly the same yardage (446), but the 49ers made fewer costly mistakes.

It is one mistake that often costs a team in a game so close.

The Giants, their fans and the objective folks in the NFL's Park Avenue offices will have to accept what happened as human error, which always will be part of the game.

It could be argued that Walt Coleman, even with the aid of replay, got it wrong last year in New England.

The weekend provided classic football, if only we remember the football.

We should remember that the New York Jets were astonishingly flawless in rocking Indianapolis, that the Atlanta Falcons displayed refreshing precocity in dispatching Green Bay, that the Pittsburgh Steelers showed hearts of steel in coming back to conquer a plucky Cleveland team.

But we also should applaud the work of the 49ers, who, like the Buckeyes, received unintended help from the officials only after getting whatever they needed to assure triumph.

This should not be a round-table discussion on whether New York got cheated out of a playoff victory Sunday, or whether Miami got cheated out of a national championship two days earlier.

What really got cheated? The games. They were fantastic, none more than Niners-Giants and Buckeyes-Hurricanes at the finish. Yet proper appreciation is being eclipsed by the intense, misguided focus on the officials.

The final scores are in. Refusing to look will not change them.

Tell us what you think on the new 49ers Clubhouse message board.