San Jose Mercury

Outcome was decided on field -- end of story
January 07, 2003

By Tim Kawakami
Mercury News Staff Columnist

The end. That's what it is when the whistle blows, the clock reads 0:00 and the New York Giants' offensive linemen are 20 yards downfield, surrounded by yellow flags and dancing 49ers.

The end isn't a day later, when the guys in the New York league office decide they need to placate the roiling Gotham populace. (Should they call in Superman to reverse the flow of time?)

The end isn't what's decided after a Zapruder-style analysis of the final, flustered seconds. Because there can't be any playoff closure if the NFL keeps opening cans of worms and finding pass-interference penalties where none had been flagged.

The 49ers face a second-round meeting with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, and they have every right to do so without retroactive challenges to the legitimacy of their first-round victory.

That's why the NFL screwed up when it released a statement Monday indicating that its officials should have called off-setting penalties at the end of the 49ers' stirring 39-38 playoff victory Sunday.

And that's why the 49ers had every reason to make their own whimsical statement after the NFL said that the Giants should have been given one more play to win the game.

``Bummer,'' 49ers Coach Steve Mariucci said when asked what his response was to a call from NFL director of officiating Mike Pereira.

Pereira is a solid guy, but he's the same official who aggressively defended Walt Coleman's dizzy ``Tuck Rule'' instant-replay reversal in the Raiders' loss at New England last year.

Fine. You don't want teams believing they have been betrayed by officials' late-game calls. Integrity of the game and all that.

The NFL did the same thing with the ``Music City Miracle'' in the 1999 postseason when Tennessee appeared to gain the benefit of a forward lateral on a kickoff-return touchdown that beat Buffalo.

So why issue Monday's statement? Why step in and announce that the 49ers' Chike Okeafor should have been called for pass-interference on Rich Seubert, a guard who lined up as an eligible receiver on the botched field-goal try?

Why point out that the Okeafor penalty should have offset the ineligible-man-downfield call and given the Giants one more play to win the game?

Because it happened to a New York team, with the New York media, in a league based on Park Avenue? Well . . . yeah, that's almost certainly why it happened.

``I think Mike said that they'd received some calls from the Giants and the media pack there,'' Mariucci said.

I am not Al Davis' biggest supporter, but do you think this could have gone this far if you switch the Raiders for the Giants in these same circumstances? Not possible. And not fair, honestly.

The Giants did not actively protest the call when it happened. The referees called Tam Hopkins, correctly, for being downfield illegally. They did not flag Okeafor for dragging down Seubert, possibly because Seubert wears jersey No. 69 and the officials may have assumed he was ineligible. All of that is confusing, confusing, confusing, even with a day to ponder.

And now the league is announcing that, in a just world, the creaky Giants field-goal team should have been given another shot?

``We would just have to block it,'' Mariucci said with a smile. ``That would've been the plan.''

Remember, the NFL wasn't pointing out an incorrect call or a flubbed ruling or a bad interpretation. There weren't clock or sideline issues. This was just a non-call. A mistake, but a human mistake, often made.

How many holding infractions on the last Giants drive could you find if you went through it frame by frame? How many false starts? How can somebody be ineligible when the play occurs, then eligible upon a night's review? How can something be a true victory one day, then, by ticky-tack judgment, slightly tainted the next?

``We didn't play the game today,'' Okeafor said Monday. ``We played the game yesterday. He was ineligible yesterday. That's all I know.''

Let's face it, nobody involved, watching or participating, knew exactly what the heck was happening as it happened in that play. The end of frenetic football games are always chaotic. Weird things take place, and almost the whole flubbed field-goal try was weird.

``How they missed that, I do not know,'' Giants Coach Jim Fassel said Monday of the non-pass-interference call.

But I don't care if the Stanford band had found a way onto the field -- ineligible band downfield? -- it was over when the referees said so, period.

Any official comment after that is superfluous, unless an immediate rematch is ordered and Don King is the promoter.

``They ruled it the way they ruled it,'' Mariucci said. ``That's the way it goes. What do you want me to say? That's the way it goes.''

The end.

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