Friday, February 3, 2012

Super Bowl Game Changers: Part I

As we get ready for Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday, I thought we would review some of the rules and situations that could either settle the result of the game, or at least change the momentum—collectively called “Game Changers.” To the extent we have talked about some of these in the past, there will be a link to the relevant post(s). There are several examples from past Super Bowls and playoff games. I've divided the discussion into two posts and the second installment will come this weekend--BEFORE the Big Game, of course.

So, why do this? For one thing, I would feel terrible if one of these happened in the Big Game and you were unprepared. For another, if one of these events should occur, you can impress everyone at wherever it is you’re watching by saying something like: “Wow! Remember Super Bowl ____ when _____ happened?!? This is just like that! Pass the seven-layer dip.”

Game Changer #1: The Tuck Rule

See the “Good Tuck With That” post, at

Patriot fans praise the Tuck Rule as an inspired interpretation of NFL rules that sparked a dynasty. Raiders fans (and players) curse it as a nefarious tool used to rob them of a chance at the Super Bowl. Either way you fall, the Tuck Rule has the potential to turn the tide of a game. Click on the link above for the details, including its impact on the 2002 AFC Divisional Playoff game, but the Tuck Rule can be summed up thusly: Once the quarterback “cocks” his arm to throw a pass, he can lose control of the ball at any point until he pulls the ball back into his body without it being called a “fumble.”

Game Changer #2: Pass Interference

Though we haven’t discussed pass interference on Naptime Huddle yet, these rules are critical to how the game is played—specifically, the passing element of the game. Simply put, pass interference is called when a player “interferes” with another player’s ability to catch the football when it has been thrown by the quarterback. Some plays are obvious, such as when a defender grabs the arms of a wide receiver to keep him from catching the ball. Fans new to football are often surprised to hear that pass interference can be committed by a player on the offense. Basically, the defensive player has as much right to the ball as the offensive player. When committed by the defense, the penalty is an automatic first down awarded to the offense, and the offense gets the ball at the spot of the infraction (when it happens in the end zone, the ball is placed at the 1-yard line); when committed by the offense, the offense loses 10 yards from where the previous play began.

Super Bowl XL (the best Roman numeral for the Big Game, in my opinion) took place between the Seattle Seahawks and the Pittsburgh Steelers. There were so many pivotal plays in this game that you can’t really pinpoint one “Game Changer.” In fact, you will see more from this game below. For now, though, let’s focus on one very controversial play that happened very early in the game. On their first drive of the game, the Seattle Seahawks had great field position, starting at midfield. On their third play, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck through the ball into the end zone where receiver Darrell Jackson caught it for a touchdown, the first score of the game. However, the touchdown was negated by a pass interference foul called against Jackson. Instead of leading 7-0, the Seahawks were forced to kick a field goal, their only points of the first half. They would go on to lose 21-10.

Game Changer #3: Turnovers

There are two posts relevant here: “Turnovers: Interceptions and Fumbles,” at; and “Famous Fumbles,” at; and “Did You Catch That?” at )

Turnovers are rarely insignificant in a game, and of all the Game Changers listed, they most consistently inspire “What if” questions. Here are just a few examples of some infamous turnovers in Super Bowl history...

OK, back to the Steelers-Seahawks Super Bowl… This play is further proof that you don’t have to wait until the final moments of a game to find a Game Changer. Again in the first quarter, Seattle tight end Jeremy Stevens appeared to catch a pass from quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, take three steps, then loose the ball. A fumble, right? Wrong. The officials ruled the play an incomplete pass. Replay revealed that the ball was still moving as Stevens brought it back to his body after catching it, so the officials got it right. Since he took steps after the grabbed it, though, the Steelers were convinced that it should have been deemed a fumble.

Naptime readers will recall a famous fumble committed by the Buffalo Bills that occurred in their last moments against the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVII. The Bills lost that game by a score of 52-17, so that turnover could hardly be called a Game Changer. That would not be the case one year later, however. In their rematch with the Cowboys, the Bills were actually leading at halftime by a score of 13-6. Unfortunately, those thirteen points would be the last Buffalo would score. Forty-five seconds into the second half, Dallas defensive tackle Leon Lett (who recovered the famous fumble a year before) dislodged the ball from the grasp of Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas. Dallas safety James Washington scooped up the ball and ran it back for a touchdown. Buffalo never recovered.

Another devastating blow for an offense is when the quarterback throws an interception that is returned for a touchdown. It can be particularly devastating when the offense is trying to come from behind in the waning moments of the game or first half. Such was the case in Super Bowl XLIII when Steelers linebacker James Harrison intercepted Arizona Cardinals QB Kurt Warner at the 1-yard line. Harrison returned the interception 100 yards, the longest play in Super Bowl history, for a touchdown, to increase the Steelers’ lead 17-7 at the half. Here's the play as it happened:

Game Changer #4: The Kicking Game

Say what you will about kickers, but your team’s kicker is suddenly your idol when there’s three seconds left in the game and your team is down by two or three points. So many significant games, including Super Bowls, have been won and lost on a kicker’s left or right foot that I couldn’t possibly list them all here. However, I can offer you some choice examples of why the kicking game can’t be taken for granted...

Giants @ Niners: On Sunday, January 5, 2003, the New York Giants faced the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Wildcard Playoff round. By the closing moments of the fourth quarter, the momentum had shifted several times and it was clear the game would go down to the wire. After the Giants kicker, Matt Bryant, missed a field goal because of a bad snap from center, San Francisco answered with a touchdown drive, taking the lead 39-38 with one minute left. When the Giants got the ball again, they actually managed to get to the 49ers 23-yard line with six seconds left—time for another field goal attempt. For the second time, center Trey Junkin, who the Giants had brought out of retirement, botched the snap, resulting in a failed pass attempt instead of a kick attempt. There were actually a lot of things going on during this play, as best described by NFL Network:

“Wide Right”: With eight seconds left in Super Bowl XXV, the Buffalo Bills (yes, them again) were losing to the New York Giants by one point. Bills kicker Scott Norwood was called in to attempt a 47-yard field goal to win the game. Unfortunately, 47 yards was the edge of Norwood’s range, and actually a long attempt for any kicker at the time. His kick was long enough, but slid just about a foot to the right of the right upright on the goal post. The Giants won 20-19.

Not all kicking Game Changers are bad: Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri was the big hero of Super Bowl XXXVI. With no timeouts left, the New England Patriots got the ball with 1:30 left after the St. Louis Rams, led by QB Kurt Warner, had just tied the game at 17. The Patriots, who were considered big underdogs against the Rams, advanced the ball to the Rams’ 30-yard line, and QB Tom Brady spiked the ball, stopping the clock with seven seconds left. With ice in his veins, Vinatieri nailed his 48-yard attempt; this was the first time a Super Bowl had been decided on the last play.

Romo's "Ruh roh": I can’t let this Game Changer go without one more botched kick attempt. What you may not realize is that the holder on field goal attempts is often the team’s quarterback, or at least its backup quarterback. This was the case on January 6, 2007 when Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo prepared to take the snap for his kicker toward the end of the first playoff game of the postseason, against the Seattle Seahawks. With just over one minute left to play, the kick was going to be a 20-yard attempt; just about the length of an extra point. He’d done it dozens of times, but when the ball came to him from the center, Romo dropped it. He picked it up and tried to run with it but was stopped well short of the goal line. The Seahawks won, 21-20, and went on to face the Steelers in Super Bowl XL.

And of course, as we’ve discussed, keep a look out for coaches icing opposing kickers!

Watch this space this weekend for the second half of our look at Super Bowl Game Changers!

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