TGS "SUPE" LIII PREVIEW...AND RULE CHANGES TO COME?
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
We’ve arrived at another Super Bowl, but if it feels like we’ve been here before with this matchup...well, it’s because we have. Not just because it’s the familiar form of Bill Belichick’s New England in the “Supe” for a third straight year and ninth time in the past eighteen seasons. It’s also a Super Bowl rematch, in fact, from 17 years ago in the first Belichick/Tom Brady Super Bowl appearance, when the Patriots faced these same Rams.
Belichick and Brady, and owner Bob Kraft, are about all that remains the same from Super Bowl XXXVI. Certainly, not much is the same on the side of the Rams, from the city they represent (St. Louis then, Los Angeles now), to the uniforms, to the majority owner (Georgia Frontiere then, Stan Kroenke now). The Rams QB from XXXVI, Kurt Warner, did make it back to the Supe with another team (the Cardinals) seven years later, and can be seen these days on the NFL Network. But only a handful of the current Rams were even part of the last St. Louis-based team in the 2015 season. Other than the team name, the current Rams have little in common with their predecessors from 17 years ago. At least Belichick and Brady (and Kraft) remain on the New England side.
But these are still the Rams, and they’re still the Patriots. (To read where we rate that pulsating 20-17 New England win in XXXVI, see our our all-time rankings for all 52 Super Bowls on the homepage.) In the meantime, we are obligated to review some of the latest controversies that allowed these sides a rematch of their classic battle from 17 years ago in New Orleans, and the talk that has dominated sports headlines since the recent conference title games.
Certainly, the Rams’ win over the Saints in the NFC championship was one of the most controversial in playoff history, based upon that non-call on the obvious pass interference (not to mention a helmet-to-helmet hit as well) on Ram CB Nickell Robey-Coleman against Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis with 1:45 to play in the game at the Superdome. The NFL has admitted error, and Robey-Coleman has even been assessed a $26,739 fine for the helmet-to-helmet hit.
None of that has satisfied the New Orleans players or fan base. In the aftermath of the non-call, players have voiced their disbelief, fans have filed lawsuits, anti-NFL petitions have been signed, billboards have been posted in New Orleans and even Super Bowl venue Atlanta, boycotts of the NFL threatened throughout the New Orleans area, and a letter from Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards has chastised NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. After all, had the pass interference been correctly called, the Saints would have almost assuredly been able to bleed the clock to around 15 seconds and convert a short field goal by PK Will Lutz. Likely up 23-20 with only a handful of seconds to play, instead of the nearly 2 minutes the Rams had to work with to move into range for their own tying field goal, New Orleans would most likely be in Atlanta this Sunday representing the NFC.
Though the reaction to the non-call has gone over the top, it is hardly the first time the NFL has been involved in playoff controversies. Indeed, this is the first really meaningful mess-up in the Internet/social media era, but we’ve seen this before. Fans of the old Baltimore Colts can surely relate.
In the 1965 Western Conference playoff at Green Bay vs. the Packers, the Colts and their fans felt similarly aggrieved, though the media and communication outlets of 53 years ago were not equipped to pile on as they are in 2019. The controversy from December 26, 1965 resulted from a late, game-tying 22-yard field goal from Packer PK Don Chandler that knotted the contest at 10 apiece and necessitated only the second-ever overtime in NFL history.
But what of Chandler’s field goal? Film footage would suggest that Chandler’s kick sliced outside the right upright; Colts players were in agreement. Eventually, Chandler would kick a 25-yard FG in the first overtime period to give the Pack a 13-10 win and a berth at home in the NFL title game the next week vs. the defending champion Cleveland Browns. But had Chandler’s game-tying kick with 1:58 to play been properly ruled, it is almost a certainty that it would have been the Colts and not Green Bay in the title game vs. the Browns the next week.
Chandler himself would eventually admit as much, though it took over 30 years for him to publicly set the record straight. In an article penned by the Baltimore Sun’s John Steadman in 1996, Chandler admitted that he missed that kick. “When I looked up,” said Chandler almost 31 years later, “the ball was definitely outside the post.”
At the time of the kick, Chandler, as he followed through, saw the ball carry wide of the target. Instantly, he twisted his head in disappointment, much the way Jack Nicklaus might when missing a short putt. The reaction conveyed the impression that Chandler knew he had failed. But official Jim Tunney (whose crew would be on the field for Tom Dempsey’s then-record 63-yard FG for the Saints against the Lions five years later, and other famous games), standing under the middle of the crossbar, ruled it was good!
When Chandler returned to the bench, coach Vince Lombardi quickly confronted him, saying Chandler’s actions questioned the legitimacy of Tunney’s call. “Vince really got into me,” recalled Chandler. “He was the reason I was in Green Bay. I had started in 1956 with Vince at New York when I was a running back and he was my backfield coach.
“I didn’t hit the ball real square on the field-goal kick and I was surprised it was called good. It was definitely outside the post when I picked up the flight. Bart Starr, the holder, always said it was inside and then curved away, but it was higher than the pipe.”
Referee Tunney did not agree with Chandler, though his defense of his ruling always sounded a bit lukewarm, if not reluctant. “I think I got it right,” Tunney later said. “But every time I’d run into Don Shula, Tom Matte and John Unitas, even years later, they’d always tell me I was wrong.”
NFL Films footage, however, would refute Tunney and instead would support the claims of Chandler and the Colts that the kick was indeed wide. But the CBS telecast of the game utilized only a sideline camera, not a behind-the-end-zone angle, for the kick. The football masses watching the game were thus not able to make an immediate judgement, the way they would in the recent NFC title game in New Orleans, when there were several angles to confirm Robey-Coleman’s early arrival on Lewis at the time it happened and were repeated dozens of times before the end of the Saints-Rams game and hundreds of more times on various national TV outlets after the game was complete. And then was the subject of thousands of more tweets, instagram messages, and any other social media venue in the subsequent week.
If there is precedent in the NFL, however, it is to make change in the aftermath of such controversy. After the Don Chandler field goal fiasco of 1965, commissioner Pete Rozelle and the rules committee of the day immediately implemented a couple of alterations. First, referees would be stationed underneath each of the uprights, then to confirm to one another before giving a good, or no-good, signal on the kick. Second, the uprights, which in 1965 extended only 10 feet above the crossbar in the “H”-shaped goal posts of the day, would immediately rise another 10 feet for the next season, when the posts would also have a slightly different design, offset a yard or so off of the goal line. By 1967 the uprights were heightened a few more feet, as goal posts took on a new “slingshot” look with a single post curving to support the crossbar, invented by Joel Rottman in Montreal, Canada. The first set, built by Alcan and displayed at Montreal’s Expo 67, was adopted by the NFL as a new look for that season. Subsequently, the uprights were raised even higher, negating the chances that a kick would ever sail far above the top of the uprights, as did many a field goal in the days of Don Chandler. All of this a reaction to Chandler’s controversial game-tying field goal from the 1965 Western Conference playoff game!
Fast forward to the 1979 AFC title game between the Oilers and Steelers at old Three Rivers Stadium. Does the name Mike Renfro ring a bell? Houston had moved deep into Pittsburgh territory late in the 3rd Q, trailing 17-10, when, on a 3rd down form the 6-yard line, QB Dan Pastorini lobbed a pass into the right corner of the end zone, which was snagged by WR Renfro. Initially, it appeared as if Renfro might not have come down with both feet in-bounds, but subsequent replays on NBC’s telecast confirmed it was indeed a touchdown, as was reported by game announcers Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen. No call was immediately made on the field by the referees, who would confer en masse before deciding that the pass was instead incomplete. Without benefit of TV replay on the field, the crew, once again headed by Jim Tunney (who, to be fair, is still regarded as one of the NFL’s all-time refereeing greats), decided that Renfro had instead failed to establish both feet in the field of play after making the catch. Incomplete!
Denied a TD, an incredulous Houston would instead settle for a 23-yard field goal from PK Toni Fritsch, and though the Oilers grimly hung in the game thereafter, it was obvious that things changed after the erred call on the Renfro catch. The Steelers finally put the game away late in the 4th Q, with RB Rocky Bleier completing a 78-yard drive with a 4-yard TD run to sew up the game for Pittsburgh in a somewhat-deceiving 27-13 scoreline. The difference in controversy from 14 years earlier and Colts-Packers 1965, however, was enhanced TV coverage, and various angles to confirm Renfro’s catch as a legit touchdown.
True, even if ruled correctly, it would have only set up for the score to be tied at 17-17 after a successful PAT. The powerful Steelers could certainly have still won the game. In that regard, the Renfro TD was a bit different than Don Chandler’s OT-forcing field goal from 14 years earlier, or the blown call on Nickell Robey-Coleman 39 years hence that came in the last two minutes of the game and really can be cited as directly responsible for altering the results of those games. But there was never a doubt that the 1979 AFC title game certainly could have changed direction had the TD been allowed. Likely level at 17-17 into the 4th Q, the Oilers would have had a better chance than still trailing, 17-13.
The NFL, however, knew it had a hot potato on its hands, as the missed call on the Renfro catch became a major storyline into, and after, the subsequent Super Bowl XIV, when the Steelers would beat the Rams in an exciting game, 31-19. The drumbeat for instant replay intensified to deafening levels, and it annually seemed as if the NFL would have to initiate some sort of review system. It took until 1986 before a limited form of replay would finally be introduced, with the Renfro controversy regarded as the catalyst for change.
(Regarding replay, it should be recalled that the original system had a replay official in the booth who would decide what plays to review and make the final ruling, regardless of the current score or the amount of time left in the game. That proceedure would be repealed in 1992, due in part to excessive delays caused by video review. Replay would not be re-introduced in its current form until the 1999 season.)
Thus, can we expect the NFL to react to the Robey-Coleman “non-call” and implement a form of coach’s challenges to erroneous calls or non-calls on the field? Perhaps limited to pass interference?
There is precedent in pro football, though we have to look for it north of the border. For the past several years, the Canadian Football League has had such a provision. Indeed, had the Robey-Coleman non-call occurred in a CFL game, Saints HC Sean Payton would have had an opportunity to challenge the play.
That’s because, in 2014, the CFL became the first football league to make pass interference reviewable. That came after Hamilton defensive back Evan McCollough wasn’t called for contacting Montreal receiver Duron Carter in the end zone (left) late in the Tiger-Cats’ 19-16 overtime win in the ’13 East Division semifinal. Instead of getting the ball at the Hamilton one-yard line, the Alouettes had to settle for a game-tying field goal in what was a CFL version of Robey-Coleman/Lewis. Thereafter, CFL coaches initially had two challenges.
Currently in the CFL, teams can make one such challenge per game (down from two, a change implemented in 2017) so long as they have at least one timeout. If the challenge is unsuccessful, a timeout is charged. But a team keeps the timeout if the challenge is successful. Regardless of the outcome, no other challenges can be made. Thus, under CFL rules in the recent Rams-Saints NFC title game, Payton, with the requisite time-out in his satchel, would have been able to challenge and have the play reviewed.
The CFL rule, unknown to many NFL followers, drew subsequent praise from various quarters, including ESPN, which also suggested it was time for the NFL to expand its replay rules. And the Edmonton Eskimos tweeted: “If anything has been learned today, it is that the @CFL rules are > @NFL rules and that there’s less of a chance of seeing the same teams in the championship.”
We agree with at least the first part of what the Edmonton Eskimos tweeted and expect the NFL rules committee to implement something similar to the CFL provisions. Perhaps to be tested on an experimental basis next preseason, but we suspect such change is coming, and soon. It might become the best thing the NFL imported from the CFL since 1967, when QB Joe Kapp (from the B.C. Lions) and HC Bud Grant (from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers) both moved to the Vikings!
Meanwhile, there are also cries for the NFL to alter its overtime rules, especially for the playoffs, to allow each team at least one possession after the Patriots would take the OT kickoff in the AFC title game and march to an immediate TD to beat the Chiefs. With both teams moving like hot knives through butter in the 4th Q at Arrowhead, the biggest moment of the game was probably the coin flip for possession in overtime.
The NFL has made overtime rule changes before, again, as a reaction to previous controversies. Though the impetus for the OT change was not due to error, rather the Saints winning the OT coin toss in the 2009 NFC title game vs. the Vikings and marching to a subsequent field goal for the victory. The OT rule would subsequently change; unless a team scored a TD on its opening drive, the other team was entitled to a possession as well, so a field goal such as Garrett Hartley’s to win the 2009 NFC title would have merely allowed Brett Favre and the Vikings a chance to answer. The first instance of a team ending an overtime in the playoffs with a TD on its first possession was, of all teams, the Broncos, with Tim Tebow at QB, throwing an 80-yard TD to Demaryius Thomas on the opening play of OT to beat the Steelers, 29-23, in a 2011 Wild Card game at Denver.
Our suggestion? Rather than guarantee each team a possession, why not simply implement the college overtime system? Though a bit gimmicky, it is certainly fair. And exciting. If the NFL is worried about fantasy football distortions, it could alter the stat-keeping in overtime; perhaps none of the stats in OT would apply, preventing the chance of a QB throwing for another three or four TDs in an extended OT period. Just like NHL players are not credited with goals when scoring in shootouts, the NFL could make for similar provisions.
That’s just our preference. But we more expect the NFL to allow possessions for both teams in future overtimes. (Which also might require extending the regular-season OT back to 15 minutes instead of the current 10, but that’s a story for another day.) Whatever, rules-wise, at least, we suspect that we’ll never see a pair of conference title games as catalysts to alter the rules of the games like the recent NFC & AFC thrillers on January 20!
SUPER BOWL LIII!
With a couple of exceptions in recent seasons (Seattle’s 43-8 romp past Denver five years ago at MetLife Stadium in particular), most recent Super Bowls have been competitive and exciting. This also reflects a trend toward the underdogs, which, after the Eagles won outright as a 4½-point dog against the Patriots last February, have now covered 8 of the past 11 “Supes” (and it would have been 9 of 11 had the three-point dog Falcons not conspired to blow a 25-point lead in spectacular fashions two years ago), and 12 of the last 17. All of this after an extended run of chalk-dominated and often-blowout results for much of the ‘80s and early-to-mid ‘90s; since then, underdogs have closed the gap on favorites, whose all-time Super Bowl edge has been cut to 25-24-2. There has been one pick ’em clash, when the 49ers and Bengals met for the first of their two title clashes in Super Bowl XVI at the old Pontiac Silverdome.
Yet even with many recent competitive Super Bowls, almost half of them (24 of 52) have still been decided by 14 points or more, which relates to many historical results in pre-Super Bowl days when lopsidedscorelines in title games were commonplace. Championship-game blowouts didn’t begin with the Super Bowl Shuffle ‘85 Bears; they’ve happened since the earliest days of the league, with several eras featuring more of them than others (such as the mid ‘50s, when a succession of NFL title games featured scorelines of 56-10, 38-14, 47-7, and 59-14!). And, as we have mentioned in past conference championship and Super Bowl previews, the all-time NFL blowout occurred in the 1940 title game, when George Halas’ Bears overwhelmed the Washington Redskins, 73-0!
Which team do we like, Rams or Patriots, in Atlanta this Sunday? Check out our detailed forecast to find out. And don’t forget, for more interesting TGS Super Bowl history (including our aforementioned all-time rankings, plus recollections of the first Super Bowl, which we attended—really!—as well as the still-discussed Jets-Colts Super Bowl III), please check out this week’s special features on our website homepage!
SB PERFORMANCE BREAKDOWN
Favorites/Underdogs... 25-24-2 (1 pick)
Favorites straight up... 33-18 (1 pick)
Favored by 0-3... 7-6
Favored by 3½-6... 7-8
Favored by 7-9½ ... 4-4-1
Favored by 10-13½ ... 5-4
Favored by 14 or more... 2-2-1
MARGINS OF VICTORY
MARGIN... NO. OF GAMES
1-3 .... 8
14 or more... 24
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