The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns have always been fierce rivals. It didn’t matter that it was the day after Christmas in 1987, as both teams forgot about “goodwill toward men” and engaged in a heavy-hitting Week 16 game at Three Rivers Stadium. The Browns were in the middle of a championship window and looking to get back to the AFC Championship Game for a second year in a row. The Steelers were beginning the waning days of the Chuck Noll era and the team’s 1970s dominance was becoming a memory.
Dick Hantak’s crew worked the game that day. Hantak was in his second year as a referee. His crew included umpire Gordon Wells, head linesman Tom Johnson, line judge Jack Fette, back judge Bruce Mauer, side judge Gary Lane and field judge Bobby Skelton. (At the time, the position names for field judge and back judge are swapped from where they are today.)
Early in the fourth quarter with the Browns leading 12-6, the Browns were driving in the red zone. After a play, the Browns Webster Slaughter and the Steelers Delton Hall got into a scrap that ended up with Skelton on the ground.
What did Hall do?
Hall lost control and was rightly ejected. Even NBC announcers Don Criqui and Bob Trumpy speculated Hall was gone before Hantak’s announcement. But it is unclear exactly what Hall did to get the gate. Did he throw a punch? Was it a foul against an official? Skelton wound up on the ground, it is hard to see on the TV just what put him there.
Interesting penalty enforcement
At first, Hantak announced two fouls that were offset, which would replay the down. But when Hantak announced, “later,” that meant Hall’s penalty was a different dead ball action and could not be lumped into the original call creating an offset. So, instead of repeating third down, the Browns got a first and goal, thanks to the Hall penalty.
What was the holdup?
Hantak did a good job getting the officials together and doing the initial penalty announcement. Afterwards, he spent a long time at the Steelers sideline explaining things to coach Noll and then getting cross-examined by the coach. He then jogged across the field to inform Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer what was going on.
First of all, Hantak had to explain to the Steelers why Hall’s penalty was “later” and not part of the offset. Then, it appears that Hantak was unaware of or forgot to initially announce that Hall was ejected. Bobby Skelton informed/reminded Hantak of the Hall disqualification. According to the rules of that day, Hantak had to inform both head coaches of any disqualifications. So, this was why Hantak had to make his second trip to the sideline with Skelton (who may have issued the foul on Hall).
Then replay stepped in
The replay official that day was Art McNally, supervisor of officials. In those days, the replay official communicated exclusively with the umpire. If the umpire’s equipment failed, there was a dedicated phone line on the bench connecting the game officials with the replay booth.
In those days, replay could step in on just about every aspect of officiating, from judgement calls to rule questions. McNally was checking with the crew about the proper spot for the Hall penalty enforcement. As it happened, Wells’ equipment failed, so Skelton went to the phone later joined by Wells. Imagine taking a phone call with around 60,000 fans screaming for your head?! You can see Skelton and Wells struggling with the phone receiver to hear and then speak to McNally.
Finally, the officiating crew got things squared away and the game started again.
On a side note, we hope someone told Wells to tuck his flags back into his pockets!
I give kudos to Hantak’s crew and McNally in the replay booth for making sure the crew got everything right. But, it probably would have been a better idea for Hantak to make sure he had all the information he needed before the penalty announcement. Someone on his crew should have made sure Hantak knew Hall was ejected before he announced the penalties. If so, that could have cut the delay time in half.
The Browns won the game 19-13 and won the AFC Central Division. The Steelers missed the playoffs. The Browns made it to the AFC Championship Game only to fall to the Denver Broncos 38-33.
The Browns and Steelers renew their rivalry this weekend; 36 years ago, this divisional game got sideways on the officials, and Hantak had to get the game back under control.