End zone turns into twilight zone


WASHINGTON -- How weird was it? There was a fumble in the end zone, a ball loose on the ground, a half-dozen bodies diving and colliding, a game on the line, maybe a season on the line, the crowd rioting, players pointing, officials diving into the pile to determine the outcome . . .

. . . and no ball.

"It's not in there," the Redskins' Charles Mann said to one of the officials as they stood on the fringe of the pile.

"Yeah, right," the ref said.

"No, really," Mann said, "it's not in there."

The ref looked at Mann. "Sure," he said.

"But, look!" Mann said, pointing to the 20-yard line, where the Redskins' Danny Copeland was waving the ball and jumping up and down.


"I encouraged him to please make the call," Mann said.


It was that weird.

How weird? You'll see another thousand NFL games without an ending this strange. This uncertain. This downright unexplainable.

"I'm still not sure what happened," said the Cowboys' Emmitt Smith, who figured prominently in the play that gave the Redskins a 20-17 win in the chill and thrill of RFK Stadium, in a game that will be unofficially recorded as a Cowboys giveaway, not that it matters.

Did the refs blow the call on the play? Maybe two calls.

Did Smith try to shovel the ball out of the end zone instead of take a safety? He did. (Don't ask him why. He doesn't know.)

Did the Redskins really win on a day they could barely move the ball, a day on which Mark Rypien was so lousy he could barely complete a swing pass? Yes.

"I've been in two Super Bowls and made sacks in both," said Redskins defensive lineman Jason Buck, "but this beats either one of those."

How weird was it? Let's take it a step at a time.

The Cowboys were ahead, 17-13, three turnovers having prevented them from putting the game away. They were in a second-and-seven at their 5-yard line, with a little more than three minutes remaining. Quarterback Troy Aikman dropped into the end zone to pass. Buck pushed Cowboys center Mark Stepnoski back and back and, finally, crashed into Aikman as the quarterback's arm moved forward to throw. The ball bounced free.

Should it have been ruled an incomplete pass? Replays indicated as such. "I saw a fumble," referee Bob McElwee said.

(If the league still had instant replay, the refs would still be huddled on the field. Was it a judgment call? Can we overrule a judgment call? Was it a pump fake? Do we have a conclusive angle? Can we get the board of governors on the phone? Should we order a pizza?)

They'll be screaming foul in Dallas today, but anyone raising a voice should be aware of Aikman's assessment of whether his arm was going forward: "I don't think it was, no. But I just should have done a better job of protecting the ball."

Oh, well. Never mind.

Anyway, the ball bounced to Aikman's left, where Smith picked it up. He took two steps and slipped. Still in the end zone, he tried to pass the ball forward. And failed. The ball dribbled on the ground.

What was he doing? We can only attribute it to panic. If he holds onto the ball, it's a safety. Two points. The Cowboys would still lead. The Redskins would still have to drive downfield and score again -- an act that seemed perilously close to beyond their capabilities all day.

"I didn't know whether it was a fumble or what," Smith said. "I just saw [tight end] Alfredo Roberts and tried to pass to him."

Never mind that Smith's knee appeared to hit the ground before he fumbled, meaning a safety should have been called anyway. The ball rolled into the cradle of Cowboys tackle Mark Tuinei's knees.

"He almost squeezed it," Copeland said. "But I was able to jump in there and get it. I didn't even see the fumble. I just heard people yelling, and saw the ball."

But no one saw him grab it, raise it over his head and run out of the end zone.

"I ran by a ref on my way out," Copeland said, "and I showed him the ball. I thought he knew it was a TD. But I was standing out there, and no one was signaling touchdown, and [teammate] Monte Coleman told me I better get my butt back into that end zone."

He did, and then it was a touchdown, and an improbable Redskins win that put them in great position for a wild-card pass into the playoffs. For the Cowboys, losers for only the third time in 14 games, it was a moment of unparalleled bitterness.

"This one," Charles Mann said, "no one will ever forget."

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