- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2005

There are so many things football officials have to keep track of. Downs. Timeouts. Substitutions. And especially the 3,600 seconds — give or take 52 — that constitutes a regulation game.

Entire seasons can hinge on each tick of the clock, so it’s important to make sure there aren’t too many or too few. Otherwise, you could have a situation like the one in Pittsburgh the other day in which the fourth quarter was inadvertently lengthened 52 seconds — and the Patriots, in what figures to be one of the biggest games of the season, beat the Steelers on a field goal with :01 left.

The oversight by referee Bill Carollo’s crew, which could have all sorts of unwanted ramifications, wouldn’t be such a big deal if the same gaffe hadn’t been committed at M&T; Bank Stadium just two years ago at a Ravens-Seahawks game. Thanks to the 27 extra seconds they were gifted in the last two minutes, the Ravens rallied to win and, as a result, made the playoffs — while the Dolphins got squeezed out. All because the referee forgot to start the clock when he should have.

Fifty-two seconds — or 27 — is no small bookkeeping error. It’s more like Enron. Or WorldCom. Heck, four years ago, the Bears scored 14 points in the last 28 seconds of regulation (and went on to defeat the Browns in overtime). In the fourth quarter, 52 seconds can seem like 52,000. Quarterbacks are that good these days at making time stand still.

One mess-up like this per decade is more than enough. Two of them makes you wonder whether the league shouldn’t add an eighth official who does nothing more than, well, watch his watch. (And possibly a ninth official whose sole responsibility is to watch the watcher. John Cameron Swayze, the old Timex tub-thumper, would be perfect … if the clock hadn’t run out on him back in ‘95.)

What’s unfortunate for the NFL is that these blunders keep occurring in games of importance — games with playoff berths (and home-field advantage) at stake, games with large television audiences. The Great Coin-Flip Flap of 1999, for instance. That happened not in a who-cares matchup between the Cardinals and Browns but in a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day scrum between the Steelers and Lions. (To summarize, Pittsburgh’s Jerome Bettis said “heads” before the overtime toss, referee Phil Luckett heard “tails,” Detroit got the ball and you can guess the rest.)

Then there’s the infamous “Three Downs” game of 1968. George Allen was involved in that one — ironically so, since he might have been the most meticulous coach in the league. But neither George nor the officials noticed that his Rams were gypped out of a down in the closing moments of their 17-16 loss to the Bears. A first-and-10 mysteriously became, after a penalty was walked off, a second-and-31. The result? L.A. was eliminated from playoff contention, and the six zebras were suspended for the rest of the season.

If there’s a “Three Downs” game, of course, there has to be a “Five Downs” game. And the NFL’s, naturally, was a championship game, the 1961 Packers-Giants clash. It went like this: Early in the second half, the Pack was penalized for a false start on second down. When play resumed, though, the down marker read “1” instead of “2,” giving Vince Lombardi’s gang a Bonus Snap.

“The incident had no bearing on the outcome,” the New York Times reported, “but it was one of the chief conversation pieces of the one-sided contest [won by Green Bay 37-0].”

What the Times meant to say, I think, was: The incident had no bearing on the outcome — thank God.

The Steelers handled the 52 Seconds Fiasco with much class. “The game’s over,” president Dan Rooney said. “It’s not going to change the score.” Mike Holmgren was similarly forgiving after the Seahawks got shafted in Baltimore. “That was unfortunate,” he said. “But you know what? There were many, many times in that football game where if we make a play the game’s over.”

One last story. In 1940, Cornell won a game with the help of a fifth down. When the school was made aware of the error, though, it said, in effect, “This cannot stand” — and its opponent, Dartmouth, was awarded the victory.

The referee, Red Friesell, took it hard. After the season, he stopped working college games and became — this is almost too good — an NFL official. In one of his first assignments, he got trampled by a beefy end and broke his leg. A retirement announcement soon followed.

“If I had listened to my wife,” he said, “neither of those things would have happened. She wanted me to quit years ago.”

Something for NFL officials to ponder.

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