Knee-deep in trouble, QB tackles history

January 18, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

The botched replay involving the Pittsburgh Steelers' Troy Polamalu was the most dubious aspect of last weekend's NFL playoffs. Having nearly decided a game, it caused a brief but understandable controversy.

But if not for a game-saving tackle by, of all people, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, we would have witnessed a play that ranked with the most infamous ever - a play that fans would have talked about for as long as football exists, such as the Steelers' Immaculate Reception in 1972 or Cal's touchdown run through the Stanford band in 1982.

If the Steelers had lost to the Indianapolis Colts on a 98-yard fumble return in the final moments, when just about all they had to do to win was take a knee, it would have been a moment of "where were you when you saw [or heard] it" history.

The playoffs have moved on, with the focus now on Sunday's championship doubleheader, but I can't stop thinking about how Steelers coach Bill Cowher tempted fate and nearly paid for it with a shattering defeat.

Cowher dismissed that line of thinking after the game Sunday, telling reporters he was sure he was right to run a play rather than have Roethlisberger fall on the ball. The Colts had all three of their timeouts left, so they could slow the game-killing process.

"We score there and the game is over. And you certainly don't question that," Cowher said.

But the game already was all but over, and as it happened, Cowher almost gave it back with help from running back Jerome Bettis, who coughed up the Fumble That Almost Was.

Twenty-eight years ago, virtually the same thing happened to the New York Giants in a regular-season game against the Philadelphia Eagles; all they had to do was run out the clock to win, but quarterback Joe Pisarcik fumbled a handoff, and the Eagles' Herman Edwards picked up the loose ball and ran it in for a game-winning touchdown.

The play, which became known as the Miracle at the Meadowlands, was so disillusioning to the losers that Giants coach John McVay was fired and the entire organization was overhauled. (I watched the game in my college dorm room in Philadelphia and changed the channel when it seemed certain the Giants had won. Hearing a thunderous roar down the hall, I changed the channel back just in time to see Edwards crossing the goal line.)

It's doubtful a coach as successful as Cowher would have lost his job over such a blunder, but he should be extra nice to Roethlisberger, who saved him from such scrutiny.

To recap, the Colts had cut the Steelers' 21-3 lead to 21-18 (helped by the botched replay) and gained possession at their 20-yard line late in the fourth quarter, but the Steelers' defense held and even pushed the Colts back, sacking quarterback Peyton Manning at the 2 on fourth down. The Steelers took over with 80 seconds left. One player on their sidelines offered a congratulatory hand to Cowher.

The low-risk, high-return play was to take three knees, force the Colts to use all of their timeouts and then kick a field goal on fourth down. They would have led by six with a minute or less to go, leaving the Colts without timeouts.

Cowher opted to try to put the Steelers out of reach immediately by scoring a touchdown, calling for a handoff to the normally sure-handed Bettis, who fumbled when hit.

"I think the smart play was to give Jerome the ball," Roethlisberger insisted to reporters.

But the fumble bounced right to the Colts' Nick Harper, a speedy defensive back, who started to run for the other goal line as incredulous Colts fans shook the RCA Dome with noise. The moment was so rich in backstory that it was almost more operatic than athletic. Bettis suddenly was about to end a Hall of Fame career with a defining blunder. Harper had been apparently stabbed by his wife in a domestic incident just a day earlier. The replay gaffe was about to be magnified. And Pisarcik was about to have to relive his moment of infamy.

One Steelers fan watching on television in Pittsburgh actually had a heart attack, according to the Associated Press.

But the lumbering Roethlisberger managed to get tangled up with Harper and bring him down near midfield.

"I just saw his leg and grabbed it, and luckily, he went down," the quarterback said after the game.

When a final Colts drive (aided by those three timeouts) fell short, Bettis and Cowher were off the hook. The potential for historic infamy was like a wisp of smoke in the wind, there and then gone.

If I'm Cowher, I'm never tempting fate again.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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