San Jose Mercury

One minute of stupidity trumps rest of 49ers' rally
January 08, 2003
By Skip Bayless
Mercury News Staff Columnist

Not for a New York minute is this meant to diminish what the 49ers pulled off from the 4:27 mark of the third quarter until one minute remained in Sunday's playoff game.

Jeff Garcia turned Joe Montana's old stamping grounds back into a Roman Candlestick with a fireworks display that produced 25 unanswered points and a 39-38 lead. Classic comeback. If only it could have ended right there.

The final minute was a comedy classic, ``Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest.'' The 49ers played the first part, the Giants the second, and the officials stole the show -- along with the Giants' second chance at a last-gasp field goal. It had to be the most bone-headed 60 seconds in NFL playoff history.

It was as if a Mel Brooks movie spilled into a great game, with Mongo playing for both teams, Slim Pickens coaching the Giants and Brooks himself reffing. ``Blazing Huddles.''

Just as Terrell Owens was turning into an all-time goat, the Giants out-dumbed him. Just as Chike Okeafor was going way down in 49ers history, the Giants and the officials out-shamed him.

The lunacy began the moment Garcia hit Tai Streets with what turned out to be the winning TD pass. Owens finally lost his cool and taunted the safety who had trash-talked him all afternoon, Shaun Williams. That was dumb -- 15-yard penalty. But Williams was dumber, retaliating and drawing an offsetting 15-yarder.

Will Allen intercepted the two-point pass and took off running. Owens should have known there was no reason to tackle him: Conversion turnovers can't be returned. Owens cheap-shotted Allen out of bounds. Fifteen yards! The 49ers would be kicking off from their 15. Monumentally dumb.

But Williams was dumber, going after Owens and throwing a punch at Jeremy Newberry. Offsetting 15-yarder. Ejection.

Still, the 49ers turned into the Raiders and allowed a kickoff return to the New York 48. The Giants were soon in position to try a 42-yard field goal with six seconds left. The 49ers called time to give rookie kicker Matt Bryant a momentary eternity to imagine the New York tabloid consequences of a miss.

Yet this allowed Giants coaches to prep holder Matt Allen. Trey Junkin, a 41-year-old signed off his couch for this game, already had blown one field-goal snap. So surely coaches reminded Allen, a rookie punter from Troy State, of every option.

``No options were discussed,'' Allen told New York reporters.

When Allen couldn't handle the off-line snap, he chose his fourth-best option. With a down and timeout left, he could have 1) thrown the ball at the feet of an eligible receiver; 2) run out of the pocket and thrown the ball away; or 3) fallen on the ball and called time, at least saving a 49-yard attempt.

But though he's large for a punter, the 6-4, 248-pound Allen resorted to the botched-snap play practiced by every NFL team. He yelled, ``Fire!'' He rolled right in what looked like a parody of ``The Catch'' play that unfolded on the same end of the field. But was Allen contained by left end Okeafor? No, he was chased by backside end Andre Carter.

For reasons even Okeafor couldn't explain, he took off downfield after tackle Rich Seubert. The officials -- and in turn the 49ers -- had been informed before the game that Seubert, No. 69, would be an eligible receiver in every placekicking formation. Over the P.A. system, officials announce linemen entering the game as eligible receivers on regular plays. But not on kicks.

So without Okeafor all over him, Allen had just enough time to heave one across his body in Seubert's direction. He threw a curve ball, but Hail, Mary, it curved right to Seubert as he turned to look at the 5-yard line.

We'll never know if the 6-5, 295-pound Seubert, a tight end at Western Illinois, would have 1) caught it or 2) tumbled into the end zone before he could have been caught and stopped by safety Ronnie Heard. Okeafor ran over Seubert what seemed like two minutes before the ball arrived.

Yes, Okeafor, who registered no tackles and no assists for the game, made one huge hit that should have been pass interference. As flags flew, he writhed like a man who thought he had blown the season.

But dumb was canceled by dumber and dumbest. Three Giants linemen, who surely had been coached to hold their blocks on this emergency play, drifted downfield. The official play-by-play says Seubert was called for being illegally downfield on a pass. Later, league spin doctors said the culprit was rookie Tam Hopkins.

But amid the fire-drill chaos, the officials forgot Seubert was eligible. He was being flagged when Okeafor should have been. At the very least, offsetting penalties should have been called. The Giants should have had one more shot.

This was nothing like sticking it to Al Davis' Raiders in last year's ``Snow Job'' game. This was befuddled incompetence.

Giants Coach Jim Fassel threw a fit, but for no apparent reason. He should have gone straight to the nearest official and said: ``No. 69 is eligible, he was interfered with and the penalties offset.''

But by then, Fassel wasn't thinking any clearer than Okeafor. Fassel didn't bring any of this up to the media because he didn't figure it out until the plane ride home.

Could Junkin have made the snap? Bryant the kick? I'm sure of only this: That final minute was even more amazing than the 49ers' comeback.

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