Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Thanks Be to Sod: NFL Miracles (Chapter 1, Verse 1)

Even the most casual football observer can’t avoid hearing about the amazing last-minute, game-winning exploits of Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.  Tebow, a college phenom from the University of Florida, has been the focus of media scrutiny since he was drafted 25th overall by the Broncos in 2010.  Despite his obvious physical talents and success in college, critics have doubted whether his skills fit the model of the professional quarterback.  No one can dispute, however, the galvanizing affect his personality has had on the team, especially in critical game situations.  That personality, though, has drawn its own criticism.  Tebow is known for being vocal in his unwavering faith in God, though he insists that he doesn’t believe that The Almighty wields his influence in game outcomes.  Though his religious beliefs can cause unease in some, Tebow’s faith in powers beyond his control extends to his teammates as well, which has motivated them to pull through in desperate situations.

The incredible comebacks and heart-stopping finishes of the Broncos’ victories this season are well documented by sports writers far more talented than me.  In homage to Tim Tebow and his Broncos, however, I offer a two-part look at some miraculous plays in NFL history:

1.  The Immaculate Reception (December 23, 1972): The Pittsburgh Steelers were facing the Oakland Raiders in the AFC divisional playoff game. With 22 seconds remaining in the game, the Steelers were losing 7-6 and facing fourth down on their own 40-yard line.  Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw threw a pass toward the middle of the field, to halfback John Fuqua.  Just as the ball was reaching Fuqua, Raiders safety Jack Tatum collided with him, sending the ball careening backwards, toward the line of scrimmage.  Having released from blocking, Pittsburgh fullback Franco Harris caught the errant ball just before it touched the ground.  Harris ran upfield, stiff-arming Raiders defensive back Jimmy Warren and scored the winning touchdown.  Luck and athleticism notwithstanding, this play was and remains very controversial.  At the time, an NFL rule prohibited another offensive player to touch the ball after it had been touched by another player.  After the catch, there were conflicting judgments among the officials over who the ball bounced off of—Fuqua or Tatum.  There was actually a 15-minute delay between the play and the final call from the officials.  Here's a video of the original broadcast, replayed during the halftime show of the 1997 season AFC Championship Game:

2.  The Catch (January 10, 1982):  In the NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys, the San Francisco 49ers were trailing 27-21 when QB Joe Montana and the Niners offense got the ball at their own 11-yard line.  Montana engineered a long drive, leading to third down at the Cowboys 6-yard line with 58 seconds left in the game.  Under pressure from the Dallas rushing attack, and finding his primary receiver tightly covered Montana scrambled toward the sideline.  He spotted receiver Dwight Clark at the back of the end zone.  After a pump-fake that got the Dallas rushers to jump, Montana threw the ball.  It looked like it should sail out the back of the end zone, but Clark leapt and caught the ball with his fingertips. 

3.  The Helmet Catch (February 3, 2008):  The New England Patriots seemed destined for a march into the history books when they entered Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants.  Having gone undefeated in the regular season, they were a Super Bowl Championship away from being the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to go undefeated through the regular season and the playoffs.  To say that the Giants were the underdog would be an understatement.  They qualified for the playoffs as a wild card, having gone 10 and 6 in the regular season, and they hadn’t won a playoff game in seven years.  Trailing 14-10 in the fourth quarter, the Giants began their drive with 2:39 left in the game.  After converting a fourth down and narrowly avoiding an interception that bounced off the hands of a Patriot defender, Giants QB Eli Manning found his offense facing a third down on their own 44-yard line with 1:15 remaining.  At the snap, Manning found himself facing a fierce pass rush.  Scrambling around the middle of the field, he eluded three separate defenders and through the ball down the middle of the field to receiver David Tyree.  Tyree out-jumped the Patriots’ Rodney Harrison and made a spectacular catch, securing the ball by clutching it to his helmet.  (During the 2007 season, Tyree had had only four catches for 35 yards, and no touchdowns.)  Four plays later, Manning threw what would be the winning touchdown to Plaxico Burress, dashing the 19-0 dreams of the New England Patriots. 

Stay tuned to this space for the second and final installment of this blessed series...

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