Monday November 19th, 2007

BALTIMORE -- If Romeo Crennel and his upstart Cleveland Browns go on to reach the playoffs this season -- and at 6-4 they may well be on their way -- perhaps they'll look back to Sunday's game against the Ravens and realize their drive to the postseason began in earnest with as close to a life-after-death experience as the game of football allows.

A stinging loss. Then a miraculous tie. And finally a dramatic win. That's how it went late Sunday afternoon for the Browns, whose happy fate rested on the bizarre double bounce of the oblong ball off a metal goal post. Cleveland's 33-30 overtime victory over Baltimore spawned what might just in these parts come to be known as Dawson-Gate, in honor of the highly controversial, 51-yard, game-tying field goal that Browns kicker Phil Dawson booted on the final play of regulation.

Get ready to hear plenty more about this one, folks. The debate is just beginning. While the officiating crew clearly got the eventual call correct -- as replays showed -- there's sure to be discussion about how and why an unreviewable play under the league's replay system some how got an "unofficial'' review. By someone, somewhere. Even if it was just by virtue of the game officials looking up and seeing the numerous replays of the disputed kick on the JumboTron screen at M&T Bank Stadium.

"I wasn't all that optimistic,'' said Dawson, whose kick was first waved off as no good by field judge Jim Saracino, before being reversed in part due to back judge Keith Ferguson's steadfast claims that he saw the ball clear the stanchion -- or extension -- that supports the crossbar and uprights. "But it's about time that this organization and franchise got a call.''

Long after the game was seemingly over -- players from both teams had already taken part in the ritual postgame mid-field prayer and some 20 to 25 Ravens were in the locker room pulling off jerseys and tape -- the Browns got the call. Referee Pete Morelli ruled Dawson's field goal good, forcing overtime and giving Cleveland the chance to win it on Dawson's 33-yarder on the first possession of the extra period.

The NFL has another potential officiating mess on its hands with this one, even though justice was served in the sense that Cleveland didn't lose a game due to a needless loophole in the replay system. Field goals are not reviewable under current league rules, but you can bet there will be a hue and cry from around the NFL that they should be in light of Sunday's events.

How Morelli and his crew got around to making the right call on Dawson's field goal certainly didn't look good if you go by the book. There were replays of the kick all over the stadium scoreboards in those confusing and chaotic moments, and Morelli did go over to the sideline replay monitor and pull the headset on that one uses to communicate with the replay booth upstairs. It certainly appeared that he was trying to use replay to review the call.

But Morelli after the game said league replay official Howard Slaven did not give him any direction via the headsets, except to remind him that the play was not reviewable. Morelli also said he never went under the replay hood to view the kick, and afterward no video of him doing so was discovered.

But while the Browns obviously made the field goal, you have to feel a bit for the Ravens' plight. Right or wrong, the call on the field was no good, and field goals are currently off limits to review. Game over, right? Wrong. Not in this case. Baltimore head coach Brian Billick was already in his office soaking in the win when a Ravens vice president of public relations, Kevin Byrne, ducked in to tell him that the team had been summoned back to the field after a review of the kick.

Byrne said Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis was already in the process of removing some tape from ankles when he found out his presence was again being requested on the field. "It's over,'' Lewis protested. "We won. It's over. We won.''

No, they didn't. They briefly got the benefit of a bad call. And because of it, by all appearances they looked like they won. But it was a bad call that got reversed. Whether or not it got reversed by means of any technological help is the grist for the argument. The NFL's official instant replay system may not have been used, but I'm fairly sure that someone saw some replay between the time the initial call was made on the field and the reversal was announced. And that's where the Ravens (4-6) can rightfully have a bit of a beef.

"I wouldn't begin to try and explain what happened at the end of the game,'' Billick said in the postgame, stepping deftly through a verbal landmine or two. "I'll leave that to those who think they know it better. I have no clue what just happened in terms of the ruling and why [the officials called it] the way they did. I'm sure they'll explain it, and I'll get the appropriate memo later in the week.''

However the NFL cleans this one up, I promise you this: It'll be far neater than the debacle the league would have had on its hands if Dawson's kick had stood as a miss when the entire football-watching world saw it clear the crossbar by a foot or so via replay. Can you imagine the storm of controversy that would have raged if the officials hadn't eventually gotten it right, and Cleveland was denied the right to play into overtime? All of us talking heads would have been screaming heads this week. The Browns would have understandably played the aggrieved martyrs and the story would have lived on no matter how Cleveland's playoff bid unfolded one way or another.

From that standpoint, Baltimore losing out was the lesser of two evils for the NFL. I was sitting near the NFL's press box observer on Sunday, and after the reversal of Dawson's kick, he was in phone contact with the league's director of game officials, Mike Periera. The instant judgment from the league office? Periera thought the reversal a good call, because he, like everyone else watching, saw the kick clear the cross bar. At least on TV replays. The officials' process of reviewing the call as a group might not have been textbook, per se, but the end result seemed to be justified.

It would be even better if this episode prompts the NFL to change its rules to review field goals by replay, even if they're only allowable in situations where the ball clearing the crossbar is in doubt, rather than the more difficult judging of where the ball broke the plane atop either upright. And for the life of me, if getting the visual evidence of whether a potential game-winning or game-tying field goal conversion isn't a good use of replay, then I don't know what would be.

"I've never seen anything like this,'' said Crennel, of his Browns' living to tell after their near-death experience. "There's a first time for everything. It was crazy.''

If the NFL is on top of its game, it'll make Dawson-Gate the first and last time we'll ever see a scenario exactly like the one we saw at the end of regulation on Sunday in Baltimore. Using replay could ensure it. Upon further review, it'd be a good call. It'd be the right call.

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