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#NFL100NFL100: 30 years ago instant replay helped decide the outcome of a game … and it wasn’t pretty

NFL100: 30 years ago instant replay helped decide the outcome of a game … and it wasn’t pretty

On Nov. 6, 1989, the Green Bay Packers hosted their hated rival the Chicago Bears. The Bears were having a down season and the Packers showing life for the first time in many years, winning several close, last-minute games and getting the nickname “The Cardiac Pack.”

The past five years featured several controversial games between the two teams. Bears coach Mike Ditka used William “The Refrigerator” Perry to rub salt in the wounds and run in a touchdown against the Packers in 1985. And, in 1986, Charles Martin injured Jim McMahon in a very late, flagrant hit.

So, the Packers and Bears hatred continued on that afternoon. But, for the first time since 1984, the Packers had a chance to beat the Bears. 

With 41 seconds left in the game, the Packers trailed 13-7 and faced fourth and goal on the 14 yard line. Packers quarterback Don Majkowski scrambled to his right, ran forward and fired a miracle touchdown pass to tie the game pending the winning extra point. 

But, across the field, second-year line judge Jim Quirk Sr. (who would later make his mark as a Super Bowl umpire and later executive director of the NFL Referees Association through 2017) had dropped a flag. Quirk ruled that the ball was past the line when Majkowski released the pass. By rule the touchdown went off the board, the penalty was loss of down and it was Bears ball.

Pay no attention to Dan Fouts, the TV commentator in the footage below. NFL rules at that time stated that the ball must be behind the line of scrimmage when the quarterback releases the pass — the location of the feet is meaningless. 

Referee Tom Dooley and his crew were following proper mechanics. Head linesman Leo Miles and drifted down field to help judge action in the secondary. As line judge, Quirk was properly stationed on the line of scrimmage to rule on whether or not the pass was beyond the line of scrimmage. He did his job and dropped the flag.

So the Bears were celebrating and the Packers were despondent. But, replay official Bill Parkinson (a former Pac-10 and USFL referee) buzzed the field. He was taking a look at the play. Under instant replay rules of that day, Parkinson could rule on whether or not Majkowski’s pass was illegal or legal.

There was no time limit to review the play, and Parkinson took several minutes. Then Dooley stepped into the clear, opened his microphone and said, “After further review, we have a reversal. Touchdown.”

The overjoyed Packers kicked the extra point and a kickoff and a few desperation heaves later, the Packers ran off the field with an upset 14-13 victory.

And, that play was rehashed for the rest of the season. The Packers fans thought it was a great call and a great use of replay. Bears fans, players, management and coaches were furious. In fact, in the Bears media guide for several years, the Nov. 6, 1989, game had an asterisk next to it and the asterisk noted “the instant replay game.”

Whether people thought it was a great call or terrible call, I think all can agree that it was impossible on analog TV to tell exactly where the ball was when Majkowski released it. Secondly, the CBS-TV camera was stationed at the 30-yard line. It was impossible to give Parkinson an accurate look down the line, a look Quirk had.

The first iteration of instant replay lasted just one more season. When owners voted to get rid of it, this game was listed as a reason. Additionally, the rule was quicky revised to use the quarterback’s body being completely beyond the line as to whether the pass was downfield. Now, a quarterback can have his heel on the line of scrimmage and legally throw a forward pass.

With the controversies surrounding subjective replay decisions today, the instant replay game of 1989 is the most controversial instant replay decision ever.

Mark Schultz
Mark Schultz
Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"

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