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Monday, July 21, 2014
#NFLMostMemorable: Yes to 'Immaculate'

By Kevin Seifert

You know how I felt. When I hear "NFL history," I'm thinking first of the frozen tundra, Vince Lombardi, Lambeau Field and NFL Films. That's why, for me, the league's most memorable play happened on Dec. 31, 1967, when Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers surprised the Dallas Cowboys at the goal line with a quarterback sneak, behind the greatest block of all time, to win the NFL championship.

As far as I'm concerned, the Ice Bowl's winning play had all the ingredients of an iconic football event. It happened in football weather, in a football town, with the most basic of football plays. It was called by a Hall of Fame coach, run by a Hall of Fame quarterback and blocked by a right guard (Jerry Kramer) with a Hall of Fame résumé.

(As an aside, I wonder how many people remember how daring a call it was. The Packers trailed by three points with 16 seconds remaining and had no timeouts. Lombardi decided against a short field goal that would have forced overtime, but if Starr hadn't scored, it's doubtful the Packers would have had time to run another play.)

Franco Harris
A marker now stands on the spot where Franco Harris made the catch that fans voted the most memorable play in NFL history.
I also realize that my sad devotion to this ancient religion places me at a generational disadvantage relative to those who flock to online polls.

A bit of background: ESPN.com asked its users to participate in a tournament last week to determine the NFL's most memorable play, and the Ice Bowl was the oldest choice on the list. The year of the average play was 1997, and at first, the bracket threatened to skew young. For a few rounds, in fact, way too many of you thought that DeSean Jackson's game-winning punt return in 2012 belonged in this conversation.

Ultimately, the Ice Bowl was eliminated in the semifinals by a play that occurred 14 years later. "The Catch" -- Dwight Clark's grab of the winning touchdown in the 1981 NFC Championship Game -- advanced to face the "Immaculate Reception" in the final. I argued against it with no luck. So in the context of your chosen final bracket, I endorsed the "Immaculate Reception" and was pleased to see that a majority of you did as well.

Is the "Immaculate Reception" the most memorable play in NFL history? It is certainly one of them, and I had no argument with the way it advanced in this tournament. I favored it in the quarterfinals over the formidable "Music City Miracle," which was wild but hasn't yet stood the test of time, and I thought it measured up better than the "Helmet Catch" and "The Catch" because of its singularity. In short, we might never see a game -- playoffs or otherwise -- end that way again.

What adds depth is that most contemporary fans have a different understanding of the "Immaculate Reception" than those who experienced it live. In 2014, most people marvel at how Pittsburgh Steelers running back Franco Harris managed to sneak out of pass protection, catch a deflected pass and score the winning touchdown in a playoff game. There was much more going on than that, and recently the NFL Network named it the most controversial play in league history.

Television viewers watching the game live in 1972 didn't see the key portion of the play -- Harris catching the ball -- and were as surprised as the Oakland Raiders to see him dashing toward the end zone. Replays were, and continue to be, inconclusive on two points that could have made the play illegal:

Who deflected Terry Bradshaw's pass some 7 yards back toward the line of scrimmage? Was it Raiders safety Jack Tatum or Steelers running back John Fuqua? If it was Fuqua, the play should have been ruled incomplete. At the time, NFL rules prevented consecutive touches by offensive players -- just in case anyone mistook it for volleyball, apparently.

Did Harris catch the ball before it hit the ground? Even the ubiquitous NFL Films slow-motion replay doesn't give us a full shot of Harris catching it.

The touchdown gave the Steelers their first playoff victory after a now-forgotten 40-year wasteland of play. It also elevated the now-common idea that officials conspired against losing teams. (Raiders owner Al Davis thought this long before it was the mindset of every losing sports fan.) The Raiders were particularly (and understandably) incensed when referee Fred Swearingen made a phone call before issuing a final ruling on Harris' score. (The call later was revealed to be to NFL supervisor of officials Art McNally.)

So in one tightly wound story, we have a still-unsolved deflection, a catch of unclear purity, a Raiders defense that momentarily stopped to celebrate and an unorthodox decision-making process by the referee. Considering that it decided a playoff game between two of the NFL's most historic franchises and that 42 years of inspection have failed to solve its mysteries, I'm more than willing to accept it as the winner of a tournament to determine the most memorable play in league history.