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NFL zebras: endangered species?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A long-simmering debate over the competence of officials reached the boiling point in the NFL in Week 13, when everything from coin tosses to Hail Mary passes came under intense scrutiny.

It started on Thanksgiving in Pontiac, Mich., well before the controversy that flared on national TV with the overtime coin toss between the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Lions were angered by two highly questionable calls that denied their defense of turnovers. Neither call was supported by television replays. When the Lions escaped with a 19-16 win, Detroit owner William Clay Ford cut loose.

"If you beat the Steelers and the referees, that's a pretty good win in one day," Ford said. "I've never seen a game called like that in my life."

The Steelers were none too happy, either, when the coin toss was apparently botched by referee Phil Luckett, allowing the Lions the first and only possession in overtime.

But that was nothing compared with what unfolded in Foxboro, Mass., on Sunday. In the span of 11 scoreboard seconds and two pass plays, the Buffalo Bills were stripped of a big road win against the New England Patriots by two brutal calls by officials.

The first let stand a first-down reception by New England's Shawn Jefferson in front of the Bills' bench on a fourth-and-nine play. Replays showed that Jefferson not only didn't have both feet in bounds on the catch, but also went out of bounds short of the first-down marker. After the officials huddled, the Patriots inexplicably kept the ball at the Bills' 26.

With six seconds left, quarterback Drew Bledsoe floated a Hail Mary pass toward the left corner of the end zone. Patriots receiver Terry Glenn rose from a crowd of players to get his hands on the ball, then dropped it. But safety Henry Jones was flagged for pass interference.

What made this extraordinary is that pass interference is never called on Hail Mary plays. Contact is a given in that situation because both teams are pushing and shoving for position.

In this case, Bills defender Thomas Smith said his arms were pinned to his side by Patriots receiver Tony Simmons -- and a picture in the Buffalo News confirmed this -- but no call was made against Simmons.

Bledsoe threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Ben Coates on the next play for a stunning 25-21 Patriots win. There were scathing indictments by Bills executives afterward.

"This is the worst officiating I've ever seen," said Bills owner Ralph Wilson. "I'll take the fine, I don't care. I don't know what can be done about it, but it was awful. I've seen football for six decades and I've never seen anything like that."

General manager John Butler was no less outraged.

"This is an embarrassment to the league and football," he said. "Something like this is disgusting. They [officials] are ruining the game. They are taking all of the fun out of it. The level of incompetence is getting worse each year."

When the Patriots ran an uncontested two-point conversion play, the point spread went from two to four, covering the three-point betting line and turning a lot of winners into losers.

Sunday's game was officiated by Walt Coleman's crew, the same officials that worked Buffalo's 26-21 upset of San Francisco in Week 5 -- and called a record-tying 22 penalties on the 49ers.

It has been a terrible year for league officials. Dick Hantak's crew blew two calls that fueled a 49ers comeback win over Indianapolis, and Ron Blum's crew was responsible for the non-call when Dallas cornerback Kevin Smith mugged Arizona receiver Rob Moore in the end zone on what would have been the tying touchdown.

Look for heavy fines this week as the league tries to restore order. And look for lots of talk about permanent officials and instant replay.

Going deep

Big scoring plays are epidemic this season. Led by the Minnesota Vikings' offensive feast on Thursday, there were 13 touchdowns of 50 yards or longer in Week 13.

With four weeks left in the regular season, the NFL already has 131 such plays this year, surpassing its decade-high total for the 1990s (123 in 1995).

The Vikings had four 50-plus scoring plays in a 46-36 win over Dallas, two on receptions by Randy Moss. The rookie wide receiver has four touchdowns in the 50-plus range this season, tying him for second in the league with Green Bay receiver Antonio Freeman (Poly). The leader remains the Ravens' Jermaine Lewis with six.

Audibles

Indianapolis became the second team this season to lose a game despite rolling up 500 yards of offense (540) with Sunday's loss to the Ravens. The first team to lose with 500 yards was the Cowboys on Thursday. The eight previous teams with 500 all won. In two games against the St. Louis Rams this season, Atlanta Falcons running back Jamal Anderson has gained 360 yards and averaged 6.8 yards a crack. In two games against the San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos tailback Terrell Davis is averaging 3.3 yards a carry. Davis was held to 69 and 74 yards by the Chargers. The Falcons are 7-0 in domes this season and play the last four games indoors. The New Orleans Saints are 5-0 when they hold a team under 30 points, 0-7 when they don't. The Cowboys have lost just one turnover in their last five games. The Packers have 27 giveaways through 12 games.

Best and worst

Best fake: Bears' field-goal team. Lined up for a 35-yard kick, holder (and punter) Mike Horan flipped a shovel pass to Ryan Wetnight, who rumbled 18 yards for a touchdown and a 7-7 tie against Tampa Bay.

Worst gaffe: Bucs' kick-return team. Right after the Wetnight touchdown, Reidel Anthony allowed Chicago's kickoff to bounce at the Bucs' 23. Wetnight recovered the free ball for the Bears, who promptly scored to take a 14-7 lead.

Most opportunistic: Bucs' Ronde Barber. When a Horan punt glanced off Jeff Gooch's side, Barber, who hadn't returned a punt since high school, ran back the short kick for a 23-yard touchdown to tie the game, 14-14.

Easiest PAT: Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri. When the Patriots scored a game-winning touchdown against Buffalo, the Bills went directly to the locker room. With just the offense lined up, Vinatieri took the extra point snap and jogged into the end zone for a two-point conversion.

Best runback: Rams' Tony Horne. The free-agent rookie from Clemson returned the second-half kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown against Atlanta.

Worst special teams: Colts. They didn't give up any big returns to the Ravens' Jermaine Lewis, but did give up three long kick returns to Corey Harris (for 55, 49 and 47 yards) that accounted for 13 points. The Colts also lost a 49-yard field goal on a holding penalty and had another field goal blocked in a seven-point loss.

Best call: Falcons' Jessie Tuggle. Mindful of the coin-toss controversy in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, Tuggle brought a sign with him to midfield for the pre-game coin toss at St. Louis. It read, "HEADS." The coin toss went smoothly, the Falcons received and ultimately won, 21-10.

Pub Date: 12/01/98

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