by Tuesday Morning Tailback
Sunday’s conference championship games were amazing. It was the first time since the NFL merger 41 years ago that both games were decided by 3 points or less and both games came down to the very last play. However, the decisive blow that determined the outcome of each game was a huge mistake. In the AFC Championship, Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a “chip shot” 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left which would have sent the game into overtime. New England 23, Baltimore 20. Later in the day, in the NFC Championship, San Francisco 49ers kick returner Kyle Williams muffed one punt return that led to the Giants go-ahead touchdown and later fumbled another return in overtime, which led to the Giants’ winning field goal. New York 20, San Francisco 17.
The heartache of both mistakes falls on one family, the Harbaughs (profiled last week in our article Hardy Har Harbaugh). The head coaches of both losing teams are brothers John and Jim Harbaugh, and they came THAT close to meeting in the Super Bowl. As for the players themselves (the “goats”), there are competing schools of thought over whether they should be pitied or loathed. On the one hand, these moments of failure will likely be with them for the rest of their lives and no one should be judged solely on one moment of weakness. On the other hand, these gentlemen let down scores of teammates and staff by failing to execute the most fundamental tasks at the most crucial moments. Further, each of these Coach Harbaughs bears his own responsibility for these critical mistakes. John Harbaugh of the Ravens did not call a time-out as the play clock wound down on the crucial field goal play, causing the whole process to be hurried. This time-out ultimately went unused and using it at that point would have cost the team nothing. Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers may have been wise to pull Williams after his initial muff which was the more egregious of his mistakes. But as they say, hindsight is 20/20.
But hindsight is also selective. While the mistakes by Cundiff and Williams will likely go down in infamy, there are always equally important plays within these games that often get overlooked when the media is selling the drama. Just two plays before that missed field goal in the AFC Championship, Joe Flacco threw a perfect pass in to the arms of Lee Evans who temporarly possessed the ball, before letting it get knocked away by Patriots’ backup cornerback Sterling Moore. This would have surely clinched the game with only 22 seconds left, made Cundiff’s FG attempt unnecessary, and sent the Ravens to the Super Bowl. And the Ravens not being in the Super Bowl is the bigger sin, since they vastly outplayed the Patriots on the road in front of a hostile crowd, while both the Giants and 49ers played championship-level football and either would have deserved their ticket to the big show.
Historically, the Giants-49ers classic playoff matches also had their share of goats. In fact, on Sunday’s ESPN pregame show had a feature on Trey Jenkin, whose bad snap on the very last play of the very last game of his 19-year career, cost the Giants a winning field goal in the 2002 NFC Wildcard in San Francisco. A less famous goat is Roger Craig. The top running back during the 49ers championship years of the 1980s, Craig starred in a commercial during the 1990 season where he boasted; “There’s no way I’m going to let one man bring me down.” In the 1990 NFC Championship Game, the 49ers led the Giants with barely two and a half minutes left to go and had a first down in Giants territory. Craig got the handoff and, was not only brought down by one man, Lawrence Taylor, but Taylor also managed to strip the ball from Craig and recover it. This gave the Giants another chance and they took advantage, drove down the field, and kicked the winning field goal as time expired. The Giants advanced to Super Bowl XV, where the most infamous goat ever, Scott Norwood of the Buffalo Bills, missed a winning field goal attempt “wide right” and the Giants were the world champions that year – not San Francisco or Buffalo.
So now these beneficiaries of the current day “goats”, the New York Giants and New England Patriots, will face off in Super Bowl XLVI. And, yes, this matchup has a historical past which includes a “goat” in a big situation. Just four years ago, these two teams faced off in Super Bowl XLII with the Patriots attempting to complete a perfect season. Most people remember the most famous play from that game, the incredible Slip, Flip, and Grip play by Eli Manning and David Tyree, perhaps the greatest play EVER. But few remember the play which preceded that one, when an errant Manning pass went right through the hands of Patriot DB Assante Samuel – a potential interception which would have won the game (watch the entire Super Bowl XLII game-winning drive).
The point is, this great game of ours is made up of thousands of individual plays of which many (if not most) ultimately effect the game and some are more remembered than others. At this highest level heroes are often forged but, unfortunately, sometimes so are goats.
Tuesday Morning Tailback is a weekly article during football season which take a critical look at the NFL. We do this from the base belief that NFL football is the greatest game in the history of mankind, but some recent policies and the overall direction of the league has chipped away at this greatness. Our primary goal is to spark debate on these subjects, so please leave your own opinion on this article in the comment box below.