So, here was my story for Newsday in the Nov. 20, 1978 edition (which came to mind after some commentator or another called Seattle’s final pass attempt in Sunday’s Super Bowl “the dumbest call in the history of the National Football League…”)
East Rutherford, N.J.—To the Giants’ coaching staff—specifically, offensive coordinator Bob Gibson—went the George Custer Medal for Incredibly Faulty Calculations. Oh, the Giants and their fans were ready to hang that one around his neck, all right.
Let’s go to the videotape, just the last 20 seconds of yesterday’s Giants vs. Philadelphia Eagles game: Giants lead, 17-12. Third-and-two at their 29-yard line. Clock running. Philadelphia has neither the ball nor any timeouts remaining. Many of the 70,318 fans had begun filing out of the stadium a minute before, when Giants safety Odis McKinney intercepted a pass, deflected through Mike Hogan’s hands, at the Giants’ 10.
Apparently the Giants have won their sixth game—the first time since 1972 they have won more than five. The sensible wisdom of the moment is quite obvious: Be conservative. As one would turn out the lights when leaving a room, one would likewise have his quarterback assume the fetal position—football embraced close to the stomach—and lie there until the last few seconds of the game go away.
But Gibson, in a hurried phone conversation from the press box with the other coaches, orders quarterback Joe Pisarcik to hand off to fullback Larry Csonka off tackle. Further, the play dictates that Pisarcik do a dance step, a reverse spin before the handoff.
And Pisarcik—oh, my…he FUMBLES. Philadelphia cornerback Herman Edwards has the ball…on the RUN…and…and…
Dramatic, no? Philadelphia wins, 19-17. After it surely had lost.
To the Eagles—specifically, Edwards—went the Little Engine That Could Ribbon for hanging in there. His run with the Pisarcik fumble covered 26 yards and was as easy as it was totally unreasonable. “Thinks like that,” Edwards said, “well, that’s why you keep playing every play, right to the end. I don’t know why it happened or what happened. The ball just fell out. There was no hit on the play….”
Back to the videotape: Pisarcik, as he turns, has the ball begin to slip off his fingers. Anyway, as he looks to find Csonka, Csonka already has passed. The ball appears to float from Pisarcik like a soap bubble; on closer inspection, it apparently brushes Csonka’s hip.
Gibson avoided the post-game elevator when he noticed reporters already aboard. Outside the press box, angry fans called for almost five minutes, “We want Gibson! Send that bum out here!”
To head coach John McVay, facing a large room full of pencils and pads and microphones after the game, went the Patience Citation for repeating—many times—the coaching staff’s reasoning for not having Pisarcik fall on the ball.
“You run that play 500 times and you don’t fumble,” McVay said, reduced to a shrug and a sigh. “There was an Eagles’ kid lying around on the ground for a while there. Maybe they were faking an injury, and we didn’t want to get the clock stopped on that, so we decided we’d go for the first down. We figure that’s a pretty secure play, guys. A hand-off to the fullback has got to be a secure play.”
Hardly anybody agreed. Once again, the videotape; a closeup of the Giants huddle: “In that situation,” Giants center Jim Clack said, “you fall on it. When Joe came into the huddle and called the play, everybody in the huddle—EVERYBODY in the huddle—said, ‘Let’s fall on it. Let’s don’t take a chance.’ But Joe, well, he can’t just change a call like that.”
Pisarcik said, “Sure, the thought went through my mind to just fall on it, But….”
But earlier this year Pisarcik was “yelled at pretty good” (Clack’s words) for changing a play call sent down from the press box by Gibson. Pisarcik admitted that, saying, “Hey, sure. I’ve been yelled at. More than once.”
To Pisarcik, then, went the Ulysses Plaque for Carrying On Despite Various and Frustrating Rough Journeys. Pisarcik’s teammates and, in fact, even director of operations Andy Robustelli, made it clear that blame for the play should not be placed on the quarterback. “My main concern,” Robustelli said, “is Joe. That the players stand behind him. We have to make sure the players don’t lose confidence in what we’re doing. I didn’t agree with the call.”
The more the play was replayed, the more outrageous it seemed to the Giants. To the Eagles, too. “I wish that wouldn’t happen against the Giants,” Philadelphia linebacker Bill Bergey said. “Dallas or Washington, yes. The Giants, no.”
So unacceptable was the manner of defeat that a Giants’ helmet came flying onto the field as Edwards bounced up and down in the end zone with his teammates. Towels and other handy items were hurled among the Giants. “I was ducking helmets,” said reserve quarterback Randy Dean. Linebacker Harry Carson remained seated alone on the Giants’ bench for five full minutes after the game. Approached later in the lockerroom, he said, “Don’t ask,” and walked out. Pisarcik, when first approached by reporters, bellowed, “Get out of here!”
Probably tackle Brad Benson was best able to reason it out. “If the uncertain things didn’t happen in football,” he said, “then why would people come out and watch us play? But the bad part for me is that I really enjoyed it until the end.”
[I came to think of that play as Moby Fumble (Thar the Giants Blow It!), as the Archduke’s Assassination—similar to the incident that triggered World War I, that fumble led immediately to the firing of Bob Gibson and, at the end of the season, the firing of John McVay and the resignation of Andy Robustelli. That play left the Giants in ruins. And the New York Times reported today that Gibson, who had been a close friend to McVay for years and that season had carpooled daily from their New Jersey homes to Giants’ practices with McVay, never coached again, never spoke publicly—and almost never privately—about the fumble. And recently was diagnosed with cancer.]