Perspective on NFL's most memorable play

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
11:30
AM ET
The roots of modern professional football date to 1920, when a group of franchise owners met in Canton, Ohio, to form the organization that soon became the National Football League. That event has produced more than 15,000 games during a 94-year span, and this summer, ESPN.com began a project designed to identify the most memorable play in the history of each existing franchise.

More than a million votes were recorded via SportsNation polls. The results are in, and this week we invite you to participate in a tournament to crown the most memorable play in NFL history. (The bracket can be found here.) Voting is highly subjective, of course, and will be impacted by fan allegiance. But in seeding the entrants into a bracket format last week, I was reminded of the impact of horizon on history.

[+] EnlargeEarnest Byner, Brian Brennan
AP photo/Mark DuncanEarnest Byner's fumble didn't simply prevent what would have been a game-tying touchdown with one minute remaining. It halted a resurrection effort of one of the NFL's oldest franchises.
Of the 32 most memorable plays in this project, nearly half have occurred since 2000. The average year of a franchise's most memorable play, via this exercise, is 1997. The median year is 1999. Only four happened before 1982, and all have taken place since 1967.

It stands to reason that for the average online voter, a play that happened five years ago is going to be more memorable than one that took place 35 years ago. It's not surprising that DeSean Jackson's game-winning punt return in 2011 stands out for more Philadelphia Eagles fans/voters than Wilbert Montgomery's touchdown run in the 1980 NFC Championship Game.

Jackson provided a unique and exciting game-clinching play, but does it compare in substance to a touchdown from an injured star that signaled the Eagles' competitiveness in a game that sent them to the Super Bowl? Probably not for those who experienced both -- but you would have to be at least 40 years old to remember that.

So as the first-round balloting begins today, I'll be particularly interested to see how horizon fares against history. Two matchups symbolize that clash, and the first is Jackson's punt return against Earnest Byner's fumble at the goal line of the 1987 AFC Championship Game.

There is no doubt that Jackson's play demonstrated a high degree of skill and produced one of the more unique outcomes you'll see in a regular-season game. It also provided an emotional swing that, from a technical standpoint, was similar to what Byner's fumble led to.

Those of us who saw Byner fumble, however, know the difference between a surprising emotional swing and a devastating one. The mistake didn't simply prevent what would have been a game-tying touchdown with one minute remaining. It halted a resurrection effort of one of the NFL's oldest franchises, squashing its bid to play for the kind of championship it had won so often earlier in its history.

Can that gut punch translate for someone simply reading about it? If not, Jackson's punt return will fare far better in this bracket than it should.

Another bracket to keep an eye on pits the field goal that won the "Tuck Rule" game for the New England Patriots in the 2001 playoffs against the 2012 "Butt Fumble." This, of course, shouldn't be a contest.

On the one hand, the Patriots' Adam Vinatieri kicked a seemingly impossible, 45-yard game winner through snow and wind to put his team in its first Super Bowl under coach Bill Belichick. The "tuck play" ruling, during which the Patriots retained possession after what might have been ruled a fumble by Tom Brady, would have been moot had Vinatieri not found a way to get the ball through the uprights.

The "Butt Fumble," meanwhile, is a hysterical blooper and one that the social-media age helped immortalize. It beat out every other moment in Jets history. In the end, it was a fumble caused when quarterback Mark Sanchez ran into a teammate. Had it happened 10 or even five years ago, we'd probably be talking about something else by now.

Horizon or history? Here we go ...
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