On January 5, 2003 the New York Giants traveled to California to play the San Franciso 49ers in the NFC Wild Card Game. Both teams were trying to revive their dominance of the 1980s and 1990s and move on from legendary coaches and players.
Referee Ron Winter, umpire Butch Hannah, head linesman George Hayward, line judge Carl Johnson, field judge Bill Lovett, side judge Doug Rosenbaum and back judge Scott Green had the honor of calling the game.
On that day in San Francisco, the Giants looked to be sending the 49ers off to golf course. With 4:35 left in the third quarter a Giants field goal put Jim Fassel’s team up 38-14. The 49ers were going nowhere fast and the Giants were ready to book reservations to the divisional playoffs.
Then, things got weird.
No longer a walk in the park
The 49ers slowly built momentum and chipped into the lead. The Giants failed to convert some scoring opportunities and the momentum pendulum swung to the home 49ers. The 49ers scored 25 unanswered point and took a 39-38 lead with 1:05 to play.
Then, things got crazy. The 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens, never a shrinking flower, enjoyed telling the Giants all about his team’s comeback. He stirred the pot and got under the Giants skin. Winter’s crew worked hard to keep the peace as the 49ers lined up for the extra point.
Then, things erupted.
Fight or win the playoff game?
The Giants completely lost control of themselves. While Owens picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct foul, the Giants safety Shaun Williams offset it with a punch and got himself kicked out of the game. Winter’s “by virtue of his actions” ejection announcement was popular among officials and several copied that announcement in subsequent years when announcing an ejection.
Even after all the melee, the Giants still had a chance to drive into field goal range, kick a field goal and win. One problem. The Giants long-snapper got injured the week prior. New York hired the retired 41-year old Trey Junkin as the long snapper. Junkin had years of experience, but a wild card game might not be the right time to knock the rust off. Junkin got off a bad snap.
Then, things got crazy.
The officials made a mistake
OK, here’s where things went wrong. The Giants lineman Rich Seubert (number 69) had checked into the game as an eligible receiver – which is allowable under NFL rules as long as Seubert reports to the referee (the NFL is the only rule set allowing this – peewee coaches I’m looking in your direction).
When the 49ers defensive end Chike Okeafor pulled Seubert down, back judge Scott Green didn’t throw the flag, apparently assuming Seubert was ineligible, thus no foul.
But there was a flag down. Head linesman George Hayward had flagged Giants guard Tam Hopkins (number 65) for being downfield on a pass. Some reports say Seubert was flagged, but it appears Winter announced Hopkins number in his penalty announcement (bad time for the mic to short out). If the officials had flagged Okeafor for pass interference, then Hopkins ineligible downfield foul would have created offsetting fouls and by rule the Giants would get another chance to get the field goal right; however there was only one foul called against the Giants and the game was over. The 49ers had won in an miracle comeback.
The following week Mike Pereira, supervisor of officials, told both teams that the officials made a mistake. There should have been offsetting fouls on Okeafor and Hopkins, an untimed down and one more play for the Giants. Years later, Pereira said that this play inspired him to assign playoff officials by crews. This happened for a few years, but has since reverted to assigning “All-Star” crews by the highest-graded officials at each position.
Official-to-official radios were still a decade away. There was no expedited replay to step in and help sort the mayhem out.
If the downfield officials thought Seubert was ineligible, why didn’t they flag him for being downfield? If they reported to Winter that numbers 65 and 69 were ineligible downfield, Winter could have said, “Wait a minute, 69 reported eligible.” Then, the downfield officials could have pieced together that there was defensive pass interference.
Or, the officials simply forgot about Seubert being eligible on a field goal play.
No matter the breakdown, 20-years ago those seven officials had to put out several fires, but got burned on the final conflagration.