Every Tuesday this season, SI senior writer Austin Murphy will choose a single significant play from the previous weekend, then take an in-depth look at that snap, talking to players and coaches about what it meant, and why it mattered.
Terence Newman feared that he'd made a serious miscalculation.
Having just returned a fumble 58 yards for what would prove to be the game-winning touchdown in Cincinnati's carnival ride of a 34-30 win over the Packers, Newman spied a cluster of Bengals fans "going ballistic" behind the end zone. Well aware of the vocal minority of Cheeseheads who'd made the trip to Paul Brown Stadium, the 11-year vet decided that a Lambeau Leap -- Bengals-style -- was in order.
"From a distance, the wall doesn't look that big," the cornerback was recalling on Monday, "so I was thinking, No problem, I got this. But when you get closer, you realize it's about 8½ feet tall. When I got up close to it, I thought, Damn, this was a bad decision. But I was already committed.'
The 35-year-old made it, but just barely, needing to perform a kind of vertical pushup to get his waist over the wall, whereupon he was subsumed into a cocoon of orange delirium.
Even this act of celebration featured an element of uncertainty. That was very much in keeping with both this wild contest -- Cincinnati led by 14, then gave up 30 consecutive points before reeling off 20 unanswered points of is own -- and the strange play that decided it.
Play-by-play entries in NFL gamebooks are, if nothing else, economical; compressed, haiku-like descriptions such as: 1-10-GB 25 (11:59) B.Green-Ellis right tackle to GB 23 for 2 yards (B.Jones).
By contrast, the official account of the play leading to Newman's heroics is Tolstoyan in its sweep and breadth:
4-1-CIN 30 (4:34) (Shotgun) A.Rodgers pass short right to R.Cobb to CIN 29 for 12 yards (L.Hall). Cincinnati challenged the runner was down by contact ruling, and the play was REVERSED.
(Shotgun) A.Rodgers pass short right to R.Cobb to CIN 30 for 11 yards (L.Hall). (4:01)
J.Franklin right guard to CIN 30 for no gain (M.Johnson). FUMBLES (M.Johnson), RECOVERED by CIN-R.Nelson at CIN 29. R.Nelson to CIN 35 for 6 yards (A.Quarless). FUMBLES (A.Quarless), recovered by CIN-T.Newman at CIN 42. T.Newman for 58 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
It was also fitting that the signature play of a slovenly, eight-turnover game featured not one but a pair of fumbles, and that it was kept alive by Newman, a player whose career had been resuscitated by the Bengals following the 2011 season.
The Cowboys had cut him, and not just to free up $8 million-and-change in cap space. Having taken him with the fifth overall pick way back in '03, they'd seen a decline in his play, and decided to cut their losses.
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Throwing him a lifeline was Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who'd coached Newman for four years in Dallas. Every so often, he'd watch tape of his former pupil. "I could see that his technique had waned a little bit. He wasn't playing the same as when I had him.
"Honestly, he wasn't playing very good" in Dallas, by the end. "But I felt like he could still run" -- Newman came into the League with 4.38 40 speed -- "and I knew what kind of character, what kind of heart he had, what kind of competitor he was. I called him and said, 'We just need to fix up your technique a little bit.'"
Newman recalls a slightly more brusque message:
"What he told me was, 'Your technique is horses----.'"
They worked on that, and on shoring up his confidence. In the Bengals' first preseason game last year, Newman lined up across from a receiver to whom he was giving far too generous a cushion.
"You need to get up there," Zim admonished. "You're acting like you're scared. So let's get up there and start challenging guys."
Newman did. He ended up leading the Bengals in passes defensed (14) and intercepting two passes, both off Peyton Manning.
Zimmer is big on challenging, and designed an aggressive game plan to take on the Packers and Rodgers, who'd torched the Washington Redskins for four touchdowns and 480 passing yards a week earlier. "With a quarterback like him, you can go into a game more cautious than you should be," he said. "We wanted to be a little more in attack mode."
With Green Bay leading 30-21 late in the third quarter, Newman reversed the Packers' momentum when he undercut James Jones to snag a Rodgers pass. Cincinnati squandered that takeaway, but promptly picked off Rodgers a second time. Leon Hall's interception led to Andy Dalton's 11-yard pass to the diving Marvin Jones, whose touchdown catch brought the Bengals to within three: 30-27.
Rodgers was having a deeply frustrating day. He'd thrown two interceptions for the first time in 41 games. He'd engaged head coach Mike McCarthy in a heated sideline argument, probably about play calling. Now he set about methodically strangling the hopes of the Bengals faithful. But on the ninth play of the drive he'd hoped would salt the game away, Rodgers stepped up in the pocket ... and was flattened by his own center, Evan Dietrich-Smith, who'd been driven backwards by defensive tackle Domata Peko, who racked up a seven-yard sack.
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The Packers were late breaking the huddle on 3rd-and-12. The ball was snapped as the play clock expired. His release a blur, as usual, Rodgers hit slot receiver Randall Cobb in the right flat. With Hall lunging to take him out at the knees, Cobb stretched for an apparent first down.
Almost immediately, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was hearing from his assistants in the press box. Cobb's knees were down before the ball crossed the orange first-down stripe. Lewis challenged, and won the challenge.
During the review, Zimmer gathered his defense. Although Green Bay was within field goal range, now facing fourth and inches inside the Bengals 30, he expected McCarthy to go for it. "In their first three games, he'd done that three or four times." Corners needed to play up, and be watchful for a quick slant. Guys up front needed to remember not to be drawn offsides by a hard count.
Rodgers handed the ball to rookie Johnathon Franklin, who was enjoying a breakout day, having rushed for more than 100 yards in relief of the injured James Starks. As Franklin prepared to leap over his lineman, he held the ball in his left arm, not bothering to secure it with his right, which is why it popped out when it came in contact with the helmet of Michael Johnson, slanting in from the left.
Safety Reggie Nelson scooped it up, spinning easily out of Rodgers' feeble tackle attempt, but as he switched the ball from his left arm to his right, it was jarred loose again by Cobb. In hot pursuit was Newman, who -- grateful for what he later described as a "proper bounce" -- took it to the house, benefitting from Hall's fine block of Green Bay's Jordy Nelson.
Various zebras cast blue markers at the spot of the first fumble. Now, to mark the site of the play's second fumble, referee Clete Blakeman flung down his white hat. Following a lengthy confab with his crew (they were chewing over the ins and outs of the NFL's rule on fourth down fumbles) Blakeman -- who still hadn't recovered his chapeau -- brought the stadium up to speed, in the same stentorian voice he uses to address juries (he is also a trial lawyer):
"Here's the situation: the fumble occurred on fourth down. However, the fourth down fumble rule only applies to the offense. Therefore the recovery and advance by Cincinnati is legal, the result is a touchdown."
More mayhem. While he'd been enjoying himself with the Bengals fans into whose laps he'd leaped, Newman figured he'd better return to sideline. "I thought I should get some rest, and a little water, 'cause I had to cover the kickoff."
He was knackered enough to ask Zimmer to make a couple of Cover 2 calls early in the Packers final possession, so he wouldn't have to play bump-and-run right away. The Bengals held off Rodgers's final, furious charge, and improved to 2-1. More importantly, they won the kind of game this franchise made a habit of losing, in the not-too-distant past.
It helps when the bounces go your way.