The Spotter’s View: Destiny’s Child

This isn’t a post about the former lead singer of the group named Destiny’s Child – though it could be considering the recent lip-syncing controversy surrounding Beyonce (remind me again why anybody cares?). No. This post is about a select few NFL teams that appeared to be in destiny’s favor thanks to a signature post-season win that included an unforgettable, logic-defying play.

Each one of the teams that we’ll be discussing in this post were on the brink of elimination, down late and without much hope of advancing. Their seasons were “over”….until destiny stepped in. One play changed everything. And that’s the key. To be included in this post, a playoff team had to be…. a). losing late in the game b). with one possession left c). had a miracle-type play go in their favor and d). had the outcome of that individual play gone in the other team’s direction, the “team-of-destiny” would have lost.

(Game-winning FGs are eliminated in this discussion as they don’t fit requirement “c” from above. Massive comebacks are excluded as well because they represent a comprehensive failure and go against requirement “d”).

By my count, there are five teams in NFL history that fit those four requirements perfectly. They are the offspring of destiny….sort of. Here is The Spotter’s View on what happened after destiny stepped in and what it means for Super Bowl XLVII.

The Team: 1972 Pittsburgh Steelers

The Play: The Immaculate Reception

The Round: Divisional Playoff Game

The Situation: After Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler scored a touchdown on a 30-yard run with 1:17 left, the Pittsburgh Steelers trailed the Oakland Raiders 7-6, facing fourth-and-10 on their own 40-yard line with 22 seconds remaining in the game and no time-outs. Head coach Chuck Noll called a pass play, 66 Circle Option, intended for receiver Barry Pearson, a rookie who was playing in his first NFL game. Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw, under great pressure from Raiders linemen Tony Cline and Horace Jones, threw the ball to the Raiders’ 35-yard line, toward halfback John “Frenchy” Fuqua. Raiders safety Jack Tatum collided with Fuqua just as the ball arrived. Tatum’s hit knocked Fuqua to the ground and sent the ball sailing backward several yards, end over end. Steelers fullback Franco Harris, after initially blocking on the play, had run downfield in case Bradshaw needed another eligible receiver. He scooped up the deflected ball just before it hit the ground. Harris then ran past Raiders linebacker Gerald Irons and used a stiff arm to ward off Raiders defensive back Jimmy Warren as he tightroped his way into the end zone. The touchdown gave the Steelers a 12-7 lead, allowing them to win the game.

Had Knoll not called that specific play, had Bradshaw thrown elsewhere, had Tatum not collided with Fuqua, had Harris not wandered downfield, had the ball careened in another direction, had Irons or Warren been a split-second quicker in their reactions….had any of these circumstances been altered – even slightly – the outcome of this game would have changed. The Raiders would’ve won 7-6.

The Aftermath: At this point in time, the Steelers had never won a playoff game. The Immaculate Reception allowed them to win their first. The emotion and joy and hope that was caused by this play and felt throughout Pittsburgh on this December day back in 1972 led many to believe that the Steelers would soon be lifting their first Lombardi Trophy. Those beliefs weren’t wrong. Pittsburgh did go on to win four Super Bowls in the 1970s. Just not in 1972.

The following week the Steelers were knocked off in the AFC Title Game by an undefeated Miami Dolphins team. Yes – the Immaculate Reception was a turning point for this franchise. Yes – it lives on as both the most controversial and exciting play in NFL lore. HOWEVER….this turn of fate, this lucky bounce, this chance happening was NOT a precursor of an inevitable championship for the Steelers in 1972. This Child of Destiny was unceremoniously abandoned just eight days later.

The Team: 1999 Tennessee Titans

The Play: The Music City Miracle

The Round: Wildcard Game

The Situation: With just :16 seconds left in regulation, Buffalo PK Steve Christie nailed a 41-yard field goal to give the Bills a 16-15 lead. The Titans season was in danger of ending. Moments later Christie kicked off….his squibb kick was fielded by FB Lorenzo Neal, who handed the ball off to TE Frank Wycheck, who proceeded to “lateral” the ball across the entire field to WR Kevin Dyson. The Bills kick coverage unit was unprepared for the trick-play as they were outflanked to the near sideline allowing Dyson to scamper 75-yards for the game-winning TD.

Had Christie kicked the ball deep to Dyson, had Neal decided to run the ball back himself, had the exchange between Neal and Wycheck not been smooth, had Dyson been one more inch upfield, had Wycheck thrown the ball one more inch upfield, had the camera angles been better for the replay officials….had any of these circumstances been altered – even slightly – the outcome of this game would have changed. The Bills would’ve won 16-15.

The Aftermath: The victory, in front of a franchise-record crowd at Adelphia Coliseum, allowed the Tennessee franchise to advance to the divisional round of the AFC playoffs for the first time since 1993, when they were still in Houston. Subsequent victories over the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars sent the Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV to face the St. Louis Rams, where they lost by a touchdown in another game that went down to the final seconds. If only destiny had stayed on the Titans side for one more moment, one mere yard, history would remember this team as a champion. Instead, this happened:

The Team: 2001 New England Patriots

The Play: The Tuck Rule

The Round: Divisional Playoff Game

The Situation: The Patriots rode the hot hand of a young and still relatively unknown QB to the Divisional Round of the 2001 Playoffs where they would meet the Oakland Raiders. That quarterback’s name was Tom Brady. A second year player thrown into the starting lineup after an injury sidelined Drew Bledsoe during a week two matchup with the Jets. Brady led his team to this moment and rallied his team from a 10-point, 4th Quarter deficit in this game. The Patriots, trailing 13-10 with 1:50  on the clock, were marching towards the tying score.  The ball was at the Raiders 42-yard line. As Brady dropped back to pass, CB Charles Woodson was sent on a “cat” blitz. The young signal caller never saw Woodson coming and fumbled the ball once impact was made. The ball was recovered by LB Greg Biekert. The Raiders had forced a game-clinching turnover…..or had they?

The play was reviewed and eventually overturned by referee Walt Coleman citing “The Tuck Rule” which states:

NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2. When [an offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.

The Patriots retained possession of the ball and promptly tied the game. They went on to beat the Raiders 16-13 in overtime.

(Two things: FIRST – As you watch this video, watch Brady’s body language immediately after Woodson hits him. He lies on the ground in obvious defeat. He was thinking to himself “F*ck, we lost”. He knew it was a fumble as did every non-delusional person on planet Earth that wasn’t rooting for the Patriots. He wasn’t thinking “Hold on a second, I was throwing that ball….this will definitely be overturned once they look at it”. SECOND – logic played no part in the outcome of Walt Coleman’s decision. He may have made the “right” decision according to the rulebook but the video evidence is clear. It was a fumble. The ruling on the field was a fumble. And yet Coleman saw enough in that video replay to meet the requirement for overturning an on-field call. That requirement is: “incontrovertible visual evidence”. Do you see incontrovertible video evidence? Do you know what incontrovertible video evidence is? I think it means “beyond all reasonable doubt”.  BEYOND. ALL. DOUBT. Take the jerseys off these players and forget the situation. Just look at the play itself. Can you say with 100% certainty that Brady didn’t fumble? Unbelievable.)

The Aftermath: I could write a book about the Tuck Rule’s Aftermath. It was and remains the most influential single play in NFL history. The Patriots went on to beat the Steelers and Rams to win their first ever Super Bowl Title. Tom Brady became an instant phenomenon nationwide and spent the next decade scorching the NFL record books. He’s appeared in five Super Bowls. He’s won three. He’s married to a super model. He’s considered the greatest player of all-time. Certainly the greatest draft pick of all-time. His coach is regarded as a living legend.

The Patriots basically parlayed the Tuck Rule moment in the anti-Buffalo Bills Scott Norwood moment. In many circles of football fan-dom, it’s believed that if Norwood didn’t miss that kick against the Giants during Super Bowl XXV that things would’ve been different. The Bills would’ve rode that momentum to 4 straight championships. Instead they live on in infamy as the team that lost 4 straight. One moment – two potential outcomes. The Patriots took their moment and parlayed it into one of the most dominant stretches of success in NFL history. It’s also believed amongst some NFL fans….that if the Tuck Rule didn’t go in New England’s favor that the Patriots may have never won a title. Maybe Brady doesn’t go into “eff-you, I won a title as a 6th round pick, now I’m going to burn down the entire league so everyone understands how great I am mode”. Maybe he’s just a solid starter who never marries a supermodel. Maybe the record books would still read “Marino” and “Elway” and “Montana” instead of “Brady”. Maybe PK Adam Vinatieri doesn’t become the greatest clutch kicker of all-time. Maybe owner Robert Kraft isn’t regarded as a genius. Maybe – just maybe – the “Patriot Way” never happens.

The impacts were felt outside of New England as well. The Raiders traded their Head Coach – Jon Gruden – (WHAT!….TRADED A COACH!) to the Buccaneers and with a slightly different approach, they became Super Bowl champs themselves. That probably doesn’t happen if Gruden stays in Oakland. In fact, the Raiders would’ve probably won a Super Bowl had Gruden stayed. Maybe two. The Tuck rule changed the NFL landscape and altered the course of history for everyone involved. It’s the only play to challenge the Immaculate Reception for the right to be called the league’s “Most Controversial in History”.

The Team: 2003 Philadelphia Eagles

The Play: 4th & 26

The Round: Divisional Playoff Game

The Situation: Following an incomplete pass on 1st down, a false start and a sack on 2nd down and another incompletion on 3rd down, QB Donovan McNabb and the rest of the Eagles offense was faced with a seemingly impossible situation: 4th & 26.

With 1:12 on the clock and having no timeouts, it appeared as though the Eagles would fall to the Green Bay Packers 17-14. “74 Double-Go” was the call in the huddle. As McNabb dropped back, he recognized two fatal mistakes made by the Green Bay defense. First, MLB Nick Barnett inexplicably covered the underneath route of the TE opening up the deeper route behind him. Second, FS Darren Sharper allowed the inside skinny post route of WR Freddie Mitchell to cross his face creating a window for McNabb to throw into. Look:

You’ll notice that McNabb barely gets the snap off as the play-clock was at :01….had he not snapped the ball exactly when he did, had Barnett not jumped the underneath route, had the Packers not been in quarters coverage, had Sharper been able to react one second earlier, had McNabb not thrown the ball to Mitchell’s back shoulder…had any of these circumstances been altered – even slighty – the outcome of this game would have changed. The Packers would’ve won 17-14.

The Aftermath: The Eagles were coming off of back-to-back seasons in which they lost the NFC Championship game. First against the Rams in 2001 and then to the Bucs in ’02. In 2003, they finished as the NFC’s #1 seed at 12-4 and were looking to finally get over the hump. They were ready to “arrive” as champions. After Mitchell caught this ball and converted an impossible situation, Eagles fans everywhere allowed themselves to dream. The Birds went on to beat the Packers 20-17 in overtime. Up next: the Carolina Panthers led by Jake Delhomme. This was our year. We put in our dues, we took our lumps and we had destiny on our side. Until we didn’t. The Eagles were dispatched of one week later by an upstart Panthers team marking their third consecutive defeat in the NFC Conference Championship game.

This play still haunts me at night:

The Team: 2012 Baltimore Ravens

The Play: The Baltimore Bomb, The Flacco Fling, The Miracle at Mile High

The Round: Divisional Playoff Game

The Situation: The Ravens were down seven points with no timeouts and only :31 seconds left in regulation. The ball was at their own 30-yard line. If this same situation was replayed 100 times, Baltimore would lose 99 of them. Instead, QB Joe Flacco heaved the ball down the far-right sideline where WR Jacoby Jones had somehow run past two defenders – who were playing prevent defense – before snatching the ball en route to a game-tying score. The failures of CB Tony Carter and FS Rahim Moore – the two Broncos beaten on the play – were soooooooooo bad that they were instantly credited for making (or more appropriately….not making) the worst defensive play in NFL history. Watch:

There is no string of alternate situations that needs to be discussed here. Just one. Had Rahim Moore not made the single worst NFL defensive play in the history of the league…..the outcome of this game would’ve been different. The Broncos would’ve won 35-28.

The Aftermath: Baltimore has taken the momentum of this play and used it to their advantage. They knocked off the Patriots in Foxborough the following week and are set to play the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Feb 3rd. The unlikely way in which they beat Denver though is the focus here. Due to the miraculous nature of the Flacco Fling and when tied into Ray Lewis’ impending retirement – it would seem as though the Ravens are Destiny’s Child. They’re supposed to win. They overcame an insurmountable situation, they’ve put in their lumps and they’re ready to send their leader off with the best possible ending to a remarkable 17-year career.

Conclusion: These five teams share one thing. They all pulled victory from the crushing jaws of defeat. They won a playoff game that they shouldn’t have. They overcame, they survived. The Ravens are still pursuing their fate. The Patriots capitalized on theirs. The others did not. The Steelers, Titans and Eagles were all, at one point, also considered teams of fate – children of destiny…..until they were orphaned. They lost despite the miracle plays that allowed them their second chance. They lost despite the stories we tell ourselves as fans: “we deserve this”, “it’s our time”, “the football gods are on our side”. They lost when we “knew” they’d win.

It’s difficult to say which group  the Ravens will wind up in. Maybe they’ll capitalize on their second chance  and walk away as Super Bowl champs like the Pats. Maybe they’ll fall short of the ultimate goal and join the other three teams as orphaned children of destiny. Regardless of how it all turns out, it’s their fate to be here.

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