Category Archives: super bowl

Play calls have gone terribly awry before Super Bowl 49

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…”)

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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.”

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[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.]

Football and underinflated heads

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In the run-up to the Super Bowl, amid too much attention to shrunken footballs, let us consider deflated heads. This week’s report of another deceased player found to have suffered from head-trauma disease related to the sport, and a medical study revealing increased risk of memory problems for kids who play tackle football prior to age 12, are what ought to scare the stuffing out of the NFL.

This is the kind of real news—as opposed to the vacuous Super Bowl media angst over players who won’t answer questions, Tom Brady’s sniffles and the chain-of-custody for game balls—that speaks to the future health of a $10-billion-a-year business. That so many former players, and potentially so many children entering the sport, will be losing their marbles prematurely would appear to dull the Big Game’s usual fireworks-and-marching-bands atmosphere.

And it could gradually siphon off future talent and fans, which is why the NFL, as reported by the New York Times, has been taking evasive action by backing nationwide Mom Clinics, meant to convince parents about the safety of having their tykes—as young as 5 years old—cracking heads in youth leagues.

It has become fairly standard for the NFL, and many of its players, to reference increased study of concussions and improved protocol in treating head injuries as their assurance against having a screw loose in later life. True enough that we all have learned plenty about the dangers over the years.

Long ago and far away, during my high school days on the football team in Hobbs, N.M., we dismissed “getting our bell rung” as an insignificant test of toughness. My friend Ronnie Foster, in fact, perfected a ball-carrying style in which he would lower his head to meet a would-be tackler, spinning away from the helmet-to-helmet blow to keep on going. I tried this in practice, with some success, but was fortunate to spend most of my time on the bench, so that I never got enough game-time action to render myself any goofier than I am.

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That was 1964. In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathlogist, diagnosed so-called “punch-drunk” syndrome—specifically, CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy—during his autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Mike Webster. But it wasn’t until 2010 that the NFL announced it was hanging posters in all of its teams’ lockerrooms to warn players about the long-term dangers of head trauma.

“Why this took so long, I don’t know,” Omalu told me in a telephone conversation at the time. “I’m no genius; this is something I read about in medical school more than 20 years ago.” Since Omalu’s discovery about Webster, CTE repeatedly has been found in deceased old players. Former New England Patriots running back Mosi Tatupu, who died at 54 in 2010, was the latest cited in a Wednesday Boston Globe article.

Of course, there have been rule changes to prevent “targeting the head area,” restrictions on contact in practice and scientific work on finding the perfect helmet. But Omalu has argued that brain damage results not just from specifically diagnosed concussions but also from repeated blows to the head, and that helmets “do not prevent concussions or sub-concussions, because they don’t stop the brain from bumping around in the skull.”

“We have to take the head out of the game,” he said.

As a cerebral exercise, discovering a way to do that—and still have football as we know it—is a far bigger challenge than keeping all the pigskins inflated properly. Especially when fellows such as Jim Tressel, when he coached at Ohio State last decade, instituted the “Jack Tatum Hit of the Week Award,” glamorizing the viciously aggressive defensive play of a man known as the “Assassin,” and whose savage 1978 hit on New England’s Darryl Stingley left Stingley paralyzed the last 29 years of his life.

Maybe not everyone in football has a screw loose, though. A year ago, the school board in Marshall, Tex.—which fields a perennial state gridiron powerhouse and where Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle played high school ball—approved plans to replace the district’s entry-level, tackle-football teams for seventh graders with a flag-football program. At least until they are a little older, those Marshall kids won’t have deflated heads.

Deflating footballs, pumping up the Super Bowl

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In the investigation of shrunken footballs, we are reassured that one thing that will not be underinflated is the Super Bowl itself. The whole idea of the NFL’s traditional two-week gap between its conference championships and the Big Game is to pump an otherwise empty information vacuum full of hot air. And this fits the bill perfectly.

From the earliest of its XLIX—sorry, 49—editions, the Super Bowl has succeeded at being America’s most puffed-up happening, an over-the-top exercise in nothing of real consequence. To now have a morsel of scandal for conspiracy theorists to chew on, and for thousands in the sporting press to comb over, feeds the ballyhoo beast.

This is all about hue and cry. And a reminder that annual media protestations of the NFL bamboozling the public with Super Bowl hype—even as said media gleefully traffic in such overkill—miss the point. That is: The Super Bowl defines hyperbole. It oozes hyperbole. It seethes with hyperbole. It strives for (and achieves) wretched excess—a self-important, overdone confluence of all that is modern America: Cut-throat competition, commercialism, conspicuous consumption, televised violence, with a clear hankering back to a male-dominated society.

The hand wringing by some pundits, that the deflated-ball caper will degrade this year’s Super Bowl, from an elite game to a spectacle, reveals a decided ignorance of the fact that the NFL purposely evolved the thing into a spectacle decades ago. The express purpose of Super Bowl exaggeration is to draw in the non-football fan, and now the curiosity about whether New England coach Bill Belichick or quarterback Tom Brady might try something sneaky guarantees more eyeballs.

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The Super Bowl already is the most watched TV show every year, and proof-positive that we have become a spectator society. The Super Bowl Party, once a village, has morphed into an entire nation, with less and less to do with the game and more an experience in overindulgence, to the delight of businesses dealing in nachos, adult beverage and gambling.

Running with such an overdose concept, a North Carolina man created a Web site in 2007 seeking 50,000 signatures to propose, to his local Congresswoman, a day-after-the-game national holiday. That effort, in the grand American tradition of a three-day weekend and in recognition of the debilitating Super Sunday immoderation, failed. But the idea was revived last year by a fantasy football group that submitted a petition to the Obama administration’s “We the People” site, which invites citizens’ voices in governing. (Among current “We the People” petitions—alongside those on issues of same-sex marriage, the Michael Brown case and mandatory vaccinations—are three railing about NFL officiating—which may be further proof that we are not a profound people.)

Consider that a 2011 essay by Robert Lipsyte, the unusually perceptive practitioner of sports journalism, argued that the annual National Football Lollapalooza might be the “only super thing we have left” in this land. “Super power, super economy, super you-name-it….gone,” Lipsyte wrote. Leaving us with a national holiday that rivals Christmas and Thanksgiving while serving as a proxy for military and economic superiority.

What we seem to be stuck with is the Super Bowl dichotomy of triviality and significance, which certainly was on full display as far back as the first of seven Super Bowls I covered for Newsday, in 1974.

That year, Miami’s future Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti confided to a couple of us ink-stained wretches that his coach, Don Shula, had overruled team doctors who planned surgery on Buoniconti’s elbow just before the game. Five Miami players, in fact, acknowledged having to play with various pins in their bodies to hold together broken bones. (One of those five, safety Jake Scott, kidded darkly that the team’s biggest fear was a “lightning storm.”) The game clearly was a big deal.

Meanwhile, though, I spent an afternoon during that year’s Super Bowl media day with the self-proclaimed “gonzo journalist” Hunter S. Thompson, who had covered two presidential elections and gained fame with his surreal, drug-infused novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Thompson had been assigned to chronicle the week’s theoretically crucial doings for Rolling Stone magazine, and found, instead, that “I feel like calling my editor and telling him there’s no story here. There really isn’t anything happening.”

If Thompson were still around—he committed suicide in 2007—I doubt he’d be shocked about allegations that New England fudged the rules by shriveling some footballs. Nor should we be, given how athletes so regularly are praised for their “competitiveness” and lauded for attempts to get any edge possible. The euphemism for bending rules is the honored skill of “gamesmanship.” Another bit of news at the 1974 Super Bowl was then-commissioner Pete Rozelle’s admission that seven teams had hidden players beyond their roster limits during the season as a hedge against injuries.

Dishonesty aside, the current  mischief, rather than a buzz-killer, has been a godsend to sports talk radio and an attention-grabbing bonanza for the NFL. The already bloated Super Bowl continues to expand in our consciousness.