A Loss to Remember

You never know for sure which heartbreaking regular season losses will become famous and which ones will sort of fade with time. Crushing losses in the playoffs and the Super Bowl, yeah, those live forever. But it’s less consistent in the regular season.

I suspect that Kansas City’s crushing loss to Denver Thursday night will be moderately famous for a few reasons:

  1. It was on Thursday night, so a whole nation of football fans were focused on it.
  2. It was a rivalry game, which always adds something to the drama.
  3. An all-time great player – in this case, Peyton Manning – played a key role in it.
  4. The ending was so easily avoidable that it is guaranteed to spark some emotion – outrage, glee or laughter.

Well, it was a preposterous loss. The Chiefs led the Broncos by a touchdown with a little bit more than two minutes left, and they were at home, and Peyton Manning – their longtime nemesis – looked too old to do anything about it. Manning’s arm these days is so far gone that one out of every three times he drops back to throw, he will do something that leaves a fan of his great career cringing. It’s like watching Willie Mays fall down in the outfield roughly 10 times per game.

But Manning is still so smart, so shrewd, so impossibly good at finding open receivers that two out of three times he drops back he will make the wobbly but successful play. He coughed and wheezed the Broncos down the field that way, helped by a silly defensive holding penalty, and on third down in the final minute he reached back into his past and threw a beautiful spiral to Emmanuel Sanders for the game-tying touchdown. There were 40 seconds left on the clock.

The Chiefs got the ball back on their 20, and there seemed no doubt that they would run out the clock because that’s what coach Andy Reid does. Know thyself, Andy. But for some reason, the Chiefs decided to try and trick the Broncos by lining up as if they intended to throw. Of course, they did not throw – as the Broncos undoubtedly knew. They handed off to Jamaal Charles. He ran into a mess of Broncos defenders, fumbled, and the ball was scooped up by Bradley Roby who ran 21 yards for the game-winning touchdown, while 75,000 or so Chiefs fans in the stadium and millions around the world simultaneously dropped their jaws.

“I’ve never been involved in one quite like that one,” said Peyton Manning, who was smiling like those guys on the “we won a million bucks” fantasy sports commercials.

It was a crushing, gutting, humiliating defeat for Kansas City, but the question here is not, “Why the heck didn’t the Chiefs just take a knee?” or “How many different ways can Andy Reid mismanage the clock?” or “Is Peyton Manning a witch?”

No, the question here is: Will this one become famous?

As soon as it happened, the first thought that crossed my mind – and perhaps yours – was the Miracle at the Meadowlands. That happened on November 19, 1978. The game was between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles. Neither was an especially good team at the time. The Eagles, under third-year coach Dick Vermeil, were trying to build something – they were 6-5 coming into the game. The Giants, under third-year coach John McVay, were also trying to build something. They were 5-6.

The Giants led 17-12, and they had the ball with a little more than a minute left and the Eagles were out of timeouts. The Giants just needed to fall down on the ball three times to win. Quarterback Joe Pisarcik took a knee the first time (well, he took a backside; he kind of fell down) and there was a little pushing and shoving after the whistle. This put an idea in the head of Giants offensive coordinator Bob Gibson: Maybe they take a knee. Instead, he called for Pro 65 Up, a play for Pisarcik to turn and hand the ball off to future Hall of Famer Larry Csonka. Players in the huddle shouted, “Don’t do it. Just fall on the ball, Joe.” But Pisarcik would remember getting yelled at the week before for calling audibles, so the Giants ran the play. It worked. Csonka smashed through the line for 11 yards. There were 31 seconds left. New York had to run just one more play. And Gibson once again called 65 Power Up, much to the screams of Giants players in the huddle.

“We’ve run that play 500 times,” McVay would say. “You just don’t fumble that play.”

Well, maybe it’s the 501st time that gets you. Pisarcik never quite got control of the snap from center Jim Clack. When he turned to hand the ball off to Csonka (“I don’t know where that call came from,” Csonka would say), Philadelphia’s defensive back Herm Edwards could already see that the ball was being bobbled. He started running forward in anticipation.

And then, Pisarcik and Csonka sort of collided — the ball smashed into Csonka’s hip instead of his stomach — and the ball fall to the ground. Pisarcik jumped on top in an effort to smother it, but the ball sprung up off the turf, through his arms. The ball then hopped up neatly for Edwards, who picked it up and raced 26 yards for the game-winning touchdown. “Wait a minute, here’s a free football!” Don Criqui told the television audience, who had been watching the credits roll on the screen. “I don’t believe it!”*

*But it was Philadelphia announcer Merrill Reese’s version — “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. I do not believe what has just occurred, here ladies and gentlemen” – that has been kept alive by NFL Films.

One of my favorite underrated stories about the Miracle at the Meadowlands comes from Jim Clack who would say that before the play his man, Philadelphia’s pro bowl defensive tackle Charlie Johnson, asked if he should take it easy. This is the gentlemanly thing to do when the other team is just taking a knee anyway. Clack shook his head. “No,” he said with shock in his voice. “We’re running a play.”

And Clack then summed it all up like so: “It’d make a good movie. We’d write a good book on how to lose.”

Here’s the point: That play became famous. It became ubiquitous. You see it all the time, heard about it all the time. It became the first thing I and many others thought of after Jamaal Charles fumbled. (In fact, on the YouTube clip of the Miracle at the Meadowlands, the top comment is: “Welcome to the club, Jamaal Charles”). Why did it become SO famous? There have been lots of crazy endings in pro football. Why that one?

You can say that it’s the power of New York – New York stuff tends to get overhyped. Maybe so, but here’s something you probably didn’t know: In the moment, it wasn’t even viewed as the most heartbreaking loss in New York THAT DAY. The Jets led New England by a point in the final minutes, but the Patriots drove into Jets territory. A questionable personal foul penalty moved the Patriots into field goal range, and they made it to take the lead. But there was time left on the clock. The Jets drove right down the field setting up a 33-yard field goal for Pat Leahy to win the game with 35 seconds left. He missed it.

At first, both New York stories played together. The New York Times actually made a bigger deal about the Jets’ loss. But as time went on, the Giants loss became famous and the Jets’ loss was pretty much forgotten. The NFL Films treatment had something to do with that. The sheer stupidity of the play call had something to do with that. The memorable names – Pisarcik, Csonka, Herm Edwards – had something to do with that. The fact that Dick Vermeil went on to lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl a couple of years later while McVay ended up getting fired at the end of the season had something to do with that.

But, let’s face it, there have been plenty of crushing regular season losses in NFL history and only a very few become legendary. There’s the Miracle at the Meadowlands. There’s the Leon Lett game where he essentially fumbled a blocked field goal attempt. There’s the Ken Stabler Holy Roller play where he fumbled forward into the arms of Dave Casper*. There’s the Dan Marino fake spike. There’s the Patriots snow plow game. There are a few Hail Marys.

*You really can’t underestimate the importance of NFL Films in keeping the memory of these plays alive. The Holy Roller play is famous largely because the great Steve Sabol and those NFL geniuses put together an incredible montage of the play, the voice of Raiders announcer Bill King (“The Oakland Raiders have scored on the most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play! … There’s nothing real in the world anymore!”) and various shots of the (then) San Diego Chicken collapsing in the stands.

Here’s the thing: Most of the others don’t quite pierce the nation’s imagination. They’re famous for a few brief moments. The fans of the two teams involved will never forget. But everyone else moves on.

Think of the time in 2007 when Buffalo beat Washington on a last minute field goal. It was supposed to be a 51-yard field goal on a rainy day, a 50-50 proposition at best for Bills kicker Rian Lindell. But Washington coach Joe Gibbs called a timeout to ice Lindell and then called a SECOND timeout after the referee restarted action, which is a 15-yard penalty. Lindell made the 36-yarder to win the game. Do you remember that? (Lindell actually also made the 51-yard attempt as Gibbs called the second timeout at the snap, but naturally it didn’t count.)

There was the Saints loss to the Jaguars in 2003. Can you picture it? The Saints trailed Jacksonville by a touchdown with six seconds left and then ran a crazy lateral play – Aaron Brooks threw to Donte Stallworth who pitched back to Michael Lewis who pitched back to Deuce McAllister who pitched back to Jerome Pathon. He ran the final 21 yards for one of the craziest touchdowns imaginable. And then … John Carney missed the point after to lose.

That same year, on Monday Night Football, Tampa Bay led Indianapolis by three touchdowns with five minutes left. And this wasn’t today’s Tampa Bay team, the Bucs were defending Super Bowl champions. But their kickoff after taking the 21-point led was returned 90 yards to the Tampa Bay 12, and four plays later James Mungro scored to pull the Colts to within 14. There were less than four minutes left.

Onside kick: Recovered by Indianapolis. Manning completed five passes, the last to Marvin Harrison for a touchdown. Two minutes left.

Onside kick: Recovered by Indianapolis. An unnecessary roughness penalty. A roughing the passer penalty. Wiith 38 seconds left, Ricky Williams scores to tie the game.

Tampa Bay gets the ball first in overtime, drive stalls in Indianapolis territory, they punt it to the Colts who drive the ball to the 22. Mike Vanderjagt’s 40-yard field goal … misses. Unsportsmanlike conduct: Tampa Bay. The following 29-yard field goal is good and Tampa Bay loses what is arguably the worst loss in NFL regular season history. But it doesn’t get repeated year after year after year like the Miracle at the Meadowlands.

Then there was the most remarkable loss I’ve ever seen in person. This was in Cleveland, the opening day game against, yes, the Kansas City Chiefs. It all comes full circle. It was a wild game all the way around. The Chiefs in those days were an absurd circus — they had the NFL’s best offense and, on many days, the NFL’s worst defense. Games would spin round and round, one touchdown after another. It was dizzying. And that Chiefs-Browns game was more dizzying than most. Kansas City’s Priest Holmes scored four touchdowns. The Browns’ quarterbacks — Kelly Holcomb and receiver Kevin Johnson on a trick play — threw for four touchdowns. It was a free for all.

And the Browns had it won. They led by two, 39-37. Around midfield, Chiefs quarterback Trent Green dropped back for the final desperate play — the clock ticked down to 0:00 — and he wanted to just heave the ball toward the end zone. But the Browns broke through and seemed to have him sacked. He was falling to the ground when in a “what the heck, it’s over anyway” maneuver, he flipped the ball back to the Chiefs 6-foot-6, 323-pound tackle John Tait.

Tait began to run. “I saw the end zone,” Tait would say, and he no doubt did see it. He also saw that it was way too far away for him to possibly get there. But he ran with gusto, and he kept running, and finally Cleveland’s Devin Bush raced over and ended the nonsense by shoving him out of bounds. Tait would say that he wanted to put a move on Bush and then remembered: He had no moves. But hey, he did make it all the way to the Cleveland 25. It was a 28-yard rush, the longest for an offensive lineman in NFL history, which you can still see on Tait’s Football Reference page.*

*In fact, over the last 50 years, John Tait is the leading NFL rusher among offensive linemen.

  1. John Tait, tackle, 28 yards.
  2. Pete Case, guard, 16 yards
  3. Luis Sharpe, tackle, 11 yards
  4. Ralph Neely, tackle, 10 yards
  5. Ed Flanagan, center, 5 yards

Still, Tait did get shoved out of the bounds, and the clock had run out, so the game was over. Only it wasn’t. Behind the play, the Browns had been celebrating. And, in celebration, Browns linebacker Dwayne Rudd (thinking that Green had been sacked and Tait was running just for heck of it) took off his helmet and threw it. That was an automatic unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. A game can’t end on a defensive penalty AND unsportsmanlike conduct is tacked on to the end of the ball. The Chiefs suddenly had the ball on the Browns’ 12 with a free play. Morten Andersen came in, banged through the 30-yard field goal, and the Chiefs got what still might be the most improbable victory ever. The Browns took what still might be the most improbable loss.

There are lots more of these — I’m sure several of your own teams heartbreakers come to mind — but only a few ever make it into the pantheon of horrifying losses. I’m not sure if the Charles fumble will be something people remember forever. The only thing we know for sure is that the Chiefs won’t forget it any time soon.

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