Monday, February 27, 2012

The John Lennon Game

Patriots vs. Dolphins at the Orange Bowl, December 8, 1980

This was a fairly desultory affair for a Monday Nighter, with a quarterback matchup pitting David Woodley against Matt Cavanaugh, and not a whole lot happened till the end. The Patriots, I had long since forgotten, had added Chuck Foreman as a third-down back, and for some bizarre reason, every time Foreman appeared in the game, Howard Cosell loudly wondered why in the world the Pats weren’t using him more often. I guess he could empathize with a faded big name who was clearly no longer capable of getting the job done.

Foreman was totally washed up at this point; having lost his job as the Vikings’ starting running back in 1979, when he gained 223 yards at an average of just 2.6 yards a pop. This would be the last NFL game of his career. The Patriots also had Harold Jackson on the roster, in an apparent attempt to reunite the 1975 NFC Pro Bowl team.

One of the best things about the tape I watched was that the commercials were intact. I always prefer to have the commercials on the games I watch, to provide the full cultural context of the moment. I particularly enjoy seeing which celebs were endorsing products at that point: Here we have Orson Welles for Paul Masson wines, Suzanne Somers for Ace Hardware, Bruce Jenner for Minolta. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice any future stars working their way up in the business, though. The absolute pinnacle in this regard was the 1970 NFC Championship between the Cowboys and the 49ers, which featured an up-and-coming Vic Tayback for Edge and a down-and-outing Rod Serling for Ford. Seeing the Ford spot really made you appreciate what yeoman work the Twilight Zone staff did on trimming Serling’s eyebrows.

Of course, late in the fourth quarter, this game became part of history. There's a legend that has grown up around it, fostering the notion that the person who broadcast the news of the murder of John Lennon to the American public was Howard Cosell. Last year, ESPN devoted an entire special to the role played by Monday Night Football on that terrible night.

But by the time Cosell got around to telling the nation what had happened, many people already had a pretty solid inkling. On the telecast I watched, taped off the air from the ABC affiliate in Baltimore, with three minutes left in the game, there was a special news bulletin reported via crawl, noting that "Former Beattle [sic] John Lennon" had been shot. The text appeared just as the Dolphins were connecting on a deflected touchdown pass that a surprised Nat Moore snared at the side of the end zone to tie up the game at 13-13.

It wasn't until the Patriots were lined up for a potential game-winning field goal, with just three seconds left in the game, that Cosell made his fateful announcement. That was about 12 minutes in real time after the crawl had appeared in Baltimore. Clearly, many football fans in Charm City - and presumably elsewhere around the country - knew Lennon had been shot or even killed before Cosell said anything about it.

The Dolphins blocked that kick, by the way, sending the game into overtime, to the obvious dismay of Cosell and Frank Gifford, who clearly could not fathom how they were going to shift gears back into the excitement of professional football. Fran Tarkenton, the third man in the booth, just seemed oblivious.

Part of this may be due to the lag between the initial reports, which were simply that Lennon had been shot, and word of his death. On the other hand, there couldn't have been too much time in between, since he was reported DOA at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital. One wonders if the shooting of a Beatle would have been enough to disrupt Monday Night Football, as opposed to the death of one. I really don't know.

In overtime, the Dolphins won the toss, Woodley connected with Duriel Harris on a long over-the-shoulder pass, and Uwe von Schamann kicked a game-winning field goal on the next play, sending all those Dolphin fans home to find out there were only three Beatles left.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Vin Scully: "What a great show, 'Logan’s Run.’ Mind-bending adventure. Eight p.m. eastern, seven p.m. central and mountain time."

Alex Hawkins: “I like it. That mind-bending – I like it.”

From the fourth quarter of the Cardinals vs. Cowboys game at Busch Stadium, October 9, 1977

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It's Boxing Day, Charlie Brown

Redskins vs. Saints at the Superdome, December 26, 1982

In the waning days of the misbegotten nine-game NFL schedule of 1982, the woeful Saints still had some kind of shot at the playoffs when this game – from a belated Week Eight – was played. But the Redskins were the best team in the league, the eventual Super Bowl champs, and the Saints were saddled with Guido Merkens at quarterback, filling in for the injured Ken Stabler. I’m not sure what exactly was wrong with the Snake, but he had been 10 for 29 with 88 yards and five interceptions in the previous two games combined, so it probably wasn’t a bad idea to get him out of there.

The Saints had tried to make a wide receiver out of Merkens in 1981 before shifting him back to QB in 1982. This would be his only start under center for the Saints, and he played about as well as you'd expect a guy named Guido Merkens to play, going 9 for 24. His lead running back on the day was Jimmy Rogers, and I had to listen closely to the announcers to make sure they weren’t saying “George Rogers,” the Heisman Trophy winner who had been the Saints No. 1 draft choice in 1981, and a big star that season. I guess he was hurt, although the announcers weren’t any more forthcoming about that injury than they were about Stabler’s.

Those announcers were Tom Brookshier and Wayne Walker. Brookshier had been half of CBS’ lead NFL team for years, alongside Pat Summerall. But when John Madden moved into broadcasting, it became clear that he was a star in the making, and CBS realized he needed to be on their A team. They considered teaming him with Vin Scully, but decided the laconic Summerall would mesh well with the hyper Madden. They were right.

Summerall and Brookshier, both ex-players, made a terrific team on their own, and it’s kind of a shame Brookshier had to be demoted. As a consolation, CBS moved Brookshier into play-by-play, which was his role for this game. And it pains me to say he was not very good, for a simple reason: He couldn’t shut up. He was not exceptionally long-winded as a color man, so apparently he thought it was the job of the lead announcer to talk constantly: “Guido Merkens, out to the side, now he’s gonna do a little dance, he’s a very good athlete, now he’s gonna run for the first, or is he?” That’s how he called a third-down scramble by Merkens. Enough already.

Wayne Walker, for his part, sounded like an insurance executive. He was a longtime linebacker for the Lions and did the 49ers games on the radio for years. I can't say he seemed very enthusiastic about this game.

There was a horrendously unjust call in this game, when Joe Theismann threw a pass down the sideline for Charlie Brown, who was out of bounds when the ball came down. But it was tipped by Saints DB Johnnie Poe, and Brown, whose feet were out of bounds when he first touched the ball, was able to get back in before he made the catch and ran it in for a touchdown.

The rule is that a receiver can come back in bounds and make a catch if he’s not the first person to touch the ball, which is technically what happened here, but it just points up that the rule needed to be tightened. Someone downing a punt near the goal line needs to establish himself in the field of play before he can down the ball at the one; that would be a nice precedent to use for this type of play. I’ve never seen another catch where you had to watch the replay to make sure the receiver got his feet back in bounds before he had full possession of the ball.

The Redskins won, 27-10, in a game that didn’t feel nearly that close. Guido Merkens would start one more game at quarterback in his career, as a scab for the Eagles in week three of the 1987 season. He got plastered by the Bears, 35-3.

The Hands of Time

Speaking of the Giants and Eagles, the two teams also appeared on the first season of Monday Night Football, on November 23, 1970. And as time was winding down at Franklin Field, they kept flashing to the scoreboard and the clock... which had this big hand sweeping around.

This was in 1970! Man had walked on the moon, and the NFL was still keeping time with a second hand.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Miracle at the Meadowlands

Eagles vs. Giants at the Meadowlands, November 19, 1978

I was initially not very excited about watching this game, not so much because it involved two mediocre teams (the Giants came in at 5-6 and the Eagles at 6-5, though the Eagles rallied to make the playoffs as a Wild Card) but because I knew who won, the final score, and the very play that ended the game. I much prefer to watch games whose outcomes are a mystery to me.

The mythology around this game holds that it was the nadir of Giantsdom, resulting in the teardown that led directly to the Parcells-led renaissance, but that wasn't quite true. The loss dropped the Giants to 5-7, on their way to a 6-10 finish. It did lead to coach John McVay's firing, but he was replaced by Ray Perkins, not Parcells, who didn't arrive until 1983. By my count, there were only two members of the Giants Super Bowl team on the field for the Miracle: Harry Carson and Brad Benson.

Sure enough, the game seemed like kind of a bore, with the Giants jumping out to an early 14-0 lead then cruising along with a 17-6 lead until late in the fourth quarter. Then, things got very interesting, with Ron Jaworski leading the Eagles down the field for a touchdown with about five minutes left. Twice the Giants seemed to have the drive stopped only to commit a huge penalty on third down (pass interference against Harold Carmichael and roughing the passer on Jaworski), although in neither instance did CBS have the wherewithal to show us a replay of the foul. With Don Criqui and Sonny Jurgensen in the booth, I think we can assume CBS assigned this game to its last-string team. Criqui at one point did note that Carmichael, who was of course six-foot-eight to begin with, like to go around in his off-field hours in high heels and a feathered hat, which must have made him clear seven feet.

The touchdown brought the Eagles to within 17-12, but Louie Giammona couldn’t handle the snap on the extra point, and in the ensuing confusion, kicker Nick Mike-Mayer tried to throw a pass and ended up on the ground with some kind of leg injury, his season over. This would have tremendous implications on the Eagles’ season going forward, but at the moment, it seemed kind of irrelevant; the Eagles were going to be down a TD whether they made the XP or not.

When the Giants started running the ball, up by five, with five minutes left in the game, I figured I knew exactly how this one was going to end. But then Giants tailback Doug Kotar fumbled, and the Eagles recovered on the Giants 30, with just over three minutes to go. Suddenly, I didn’t know what was going to happen. The Eagles (who would have been down by just a field goal if they hadn’t honked two extra points by this point) started driving, but one of their running backs (I think it was Mike Hogan) coughed up the ball – only to have an Eagles lineman fall on the ball. Then Jaworski rifled a ball off a receiver’s hands into the hands of Giants DB Odis McKinney. With 1:22 left, the Giants took over on their own 10. The Eagles had one timeout left.

On the first snap, Jersey Joe Pisarcik just fell on the ball, only to get crunched by Eagles linebacker Frank LeMaster. The Eagles took their last timeout. On the next play, perhaps to avoid getting crushed, Pisarcik handed off to Larry Csonka, who tore up the middle for 11 yards. The clock was still ticking; the Giants needed to run one more play. CBS rolled the credits. Pisarcik took the snap and turned to hand off again to Csonka, who wasn’t expecting the ball and ran right past him. It deflected off his elbow and fell to the ground. Herman Edwards scooped up the ball and ran in untouched.

One wonders why Csonka was in the game in the first place. Even within the Giants committee of running backs, he was clearly a backup. The 11-yard run was only his second carry of the day. Maybe McVay felt like he needed some veteran presence to help close out the game.

“An incredible development!” Criqui screamed. The cameras caught Dick Vermeil completely blissed out, hugging random players, but they never did show anyone in the stands. It would have been fun to see Giants rooters staring into nothingness.

Special thanks to Dan Lee for his invaluable assistance