If you haven’t already checked it out, you really should get a look at NFL.com’s Greatest Play of All Time segment. The cold turn in our weather coupled to the deep freeze of being two months into the close season has certainly been thawed by a stroll down memory lane on some of the best moments ever to have graced a football field.
In a cap-doff to college basketball’s March Madness, the website crew took 64 great NFL plays and decided to match them up head to head. They broke it down into four segments of 16 plays each and then paired up eight direct head-to-heads in each of the four brackets.
They opened it up to voting for four days with one play in each of the head-to-heads being eliminated in a straight knockout. Then it was on to round two, with each winner advancing to square off with the winner in the next row up or down, in the same way that a tennis Grand Slam works.
At the time of writing, there are only eight plays still standing, in other words, just one head-to-head match-up in each of the four brackets, and that will be down to four plays left this week as the battle to be voted the greatest play of all time rages on.
One of the great things about it is that you can watch a video clip of all 64 plays. You can simply go back to the first round and click on any one – or all – of them to relive some NFL magic.
And you should be prepared for a few surprises because believe it or not, Marcus Allen’s sublime 74-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XVIII didn’t even make it past the first round. That could have had something to do with somebody deciding to put it up against The Catch by Dwight Clark in the opening round. Two iconic plays and one of them had to go. That’s how tough the competition is.
As wonderful as I found it reliving some of those fabulous plays, some of which I was privileged enough to witness in person, a thought occurred to me while flicking through. Not all of them were made in the era of coaches throwing challenge flags and officials taking another look under the replay hood. And if they had been subject to that sort of stringent examination, some of the 64 classic plays would have had to be replaced because they would never have existed while even some of the ones that were reviewed still have a suspicious shadow cast over them.
The Music City Miracle for example is still agonised over to this day and certainly disputed by the Buffalo Bills. Frank Wycheck’s lateral pass on the kick return was questionable at best when trying to decide if it was forward or not. Where exactly was the ball when he let go and just where did Kevin Dyson actually catch it? Would advanced camera angles and replay capabilities today be able to determine it for sure in a way that replay failed to overturn the on-field call of touchdown back in 2000?
Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception in 1972 was hotly disputed by the Oakland Raiders within seconds of it happening and Jack Tatum protested it all the way to the grave 38 years later. The refs on the day ruled that Terry Bradshaw’s forward pass had rebounded off Tatum’s helmet but the man they called Assassin swore blind it had hit Steelers halfback John ‘Frenchy’ Fuqua instead, making Harris’s catch illegal by NFL rules at that time.
Clarence Davis’s Sea Of Hands catch in the 1974 playoff game which saw Oakland eliminate Miami as the Dolphins tried to win a third consecutive Super Bowl would have survived the replay examination, I am sure, because even by today’s stricter rules on catches, Davis wrestles the ball away from the Dolphin defenders and maintains possession all the way to the ground. They may have discussed whether or not he used the ground to control the ball and there would certainly have been a long look at Kenny Stabler to see if his knee hit the ground before he threw the ball, but I think the Raiders would have survived any challenge.
However, the one that really kicked me in the gut this week was taking another look at a lesser-known play which has long been right up there on my list of all-time greats and which I have sometimes thought of as my favourite NFL play. Having had another look at it this week, I am fairly sure that if a replay system had been in operation, it would have seen it negated and one of the great finishes to any NFL game would have fizzled out to a gallant but ultimately fruitless Hail Mary.
The year was 1983, and the San Francisco 49ers were playing the Atlanta Falcons at the old Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. Trailing 24-22 with two seconds left and holed up at the San Francisco 47, the Falcons had no option but to throw one down the field and hope for the best. They then proceeded to run the perfect Hail Mary, just the way coaches draw it up on the board.
Steve Bartkowski dropped straight back to pass and got decent protection. At just the right moment, he stepped up into the pocket and released a pass down the left side of the field, aiming for Stacey Bailey and Floyd Hodge at about the three-yard line. As Bailey and Hodge went airborne with three San Francisco defenders, one of the most dramatic moments in NFL history started to unfold.
The idea of a Hail Mary is not necessarily that the jumping receiver will catch the pass but that he will do enough to be able to tip the ball backwards to a trailing receiver who will have a better chance to snare it. The trailing receiver was Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson. Bailey and Hodge would have been too busy to notice that just as they went up in the air to meet the falling ball, the muddy turf gave way under Johnson’s feet. He slipped and ended up flat on the floor.
Not to be deterred, Johnson was up as quick as a flash, just as Bailey and Hodge did their part by jumping with the defenders. They - or the defenders - tipped the ball backwards where it was falling to earth at the five-yard line. Johnson alertly grabbed it around his ankles, aware of the fact that if it hit the ground the game was over because the clock had already expired.
Catching the ball however, was the least of Johnson’s worries because his path to the goalline was obstructed by more San Francisco defenders. Quick thinking told him to turn back. He side-stepped back to the eight-yard line to create some room and time to think, and then picked his spot and went for it.
At the five-yard line, he met the 49ers resistance. There was no way he was going to reach the goalline – until he decided to get up in the air. He leaped over the advancing defenders and as he started to fall, he reached for the line. There was a long pause as officials all around looked at each other for confirmation before finally the arms went up to signal the winning touchdown.
The commentators you will hear on the NFL.com clip are giddy enough with excitement as they await the verdict from the refs but years ago I heard what I think was the Atlanta Falcons radio network crew who, naturally, were apoplectic, with one of them screaming into his microphone “HE IS…HE IS…GIVE IT TO HIM!” before the arms were raised.
Pandemonium ensued as the Falcons celebrated one of the great finishes in NFL history.
As much as I love that play, the angle they are showing on that clip right now suggests that modern technology would have reviewed it and taken it away because I am fairly sure looking at it now that Johnson’s elbow and his shoulder – and quite possibly his knee – hit the ground before he stretched the ball for the line.
So how should I feel? Glad that replay was not around in 1983 to mess up one of the great moments in NFL history or a bit guilty that I have spent 30 years getting goose bumps every time I see a play I pretty much know not to have been fair. It’s not that Johnson cheated or even tried to deceive anyone. He was simply trying to win a game but the officials probably made the wrong call and that wouldn’t be the only great play that would be getting called back if booth reviews had always been available.
Even if Johnson’s play had survived a review, the sheer drama of the moment would have been robbed of some of its excitement by not being able to celebrate it as it happened but rather by having to wait three or four minutes for a challenge and a review.
Replay is, of course, the right way to go even for those of us who can’t stand it. It took what seemed like an eternity for it to confirm the call on the field in Super Bowl XLIII when Ben Roethlisberger threaded a picture-perfect pass to Santonio Holmes to win the Lombardi Trophy, again negating some of the excitement.
But I can only say, rightly or wrongly, I am glad to be able to say that on the night of November 20, 1983 replay was only for giving viewers in TV land another shot at what just happened. Billy Johnson scored that night. It says so in the NFL records and you can see it for yourself right now on NFL.com.
As a post script to the Johnson story, you should know that it did not make it into the final eight in the voting. It lost out in round two to DeSean Jackson’s punt return against the Giants.
Jackson is still going strong in the final eight but is matched up against The Catch while the Immaculate Reception – once voted greatest play by NFL Films – is still there, needing to defeat Troy Polamalu’s flying tackle to reach the final four.
Elsewhere, David Tyree’s helmet catch is going head-to-head with Steve Young’s amazing TD run against Minnesota. How do you split those two?
And finally, it is the Music City Miracle against Marshawn Lynch in Beast Mode against the Saints.
Battle is well and truly joined. The competition promises to be fascinating right down to the last vote. If you haven’t already taken a look, I suggest you find a spare hour and do so. Well worth it.