Thursday October 9th, 2014

Being driven, Super Bowl-winning NFL head coaches, they were by their very nature, control freaks. Large and in charge, on top of everything, and never missing a trick. And yet on that memorable night in Seattle, Bill Parcells and Mike Holmgren, for opposite reasons, didn’t even bother to watch the jaw-dropping play that wound up deciding their NFC first-round playoff game. So certain were they of its outcome, they both turned their back on the field and began making plans for what came next.   

Not that either one of them could have ever imagined it.   

The snap. The hold. The kick. It’s a three-step process that’s so formulaic, so routine -- at least when it comes to chip-shot, 19-yard field goal attempts -- that neither coach deemed it worth his full attention. 

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“You don’t expect it,’’ Holmgren recalled last week. “I certainly didn’t that evening. It had never happened to me before in coaching. But it does happen. And when it does, it’s the darndest thing.’’   

The Cowboys and their fans heartily concur, of course. All of Dallas probably still remembers where they were the night Tony Romo botched the hold in Seattle, costing the Cowboys the easiest of three points and what looked to be a near-certain playoff victory over the defending NFC champion Seahawks. That gut-wrenching 21-20 loss in January 2007 proved to not only be the final impetus that finally pushed a spent Parcells into coaching retirement, but also marked the Cowboys’ first exquisite ride on the harrowing Romo-coaster that has in part defined the otherwise sterling career of the 12th-year Dallas quarterback.   

When the on-target snap for that 19-yard Martin Gramatica field goal attempt escaped Romo’s grasp and was bobbled away with a little more than a minute remaining to play, it fairly or unfairly gave birth to Romo’s reputation for crushing late-game mistakes and meltdowns, and also gave rise to a conspiracy theory that grew up around questions of whether the ball was too slick to catch, and why?   

Almost eight years have passed since that playoff game turned in such epic fashion, and the 4-1 Cowboys are headed back to Seattle this weekend for a showdown with the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks (3-1). Reached at home in upstate New York last week, Parcells was in an expansive and reflective mood when asked about his memories from that night, with the lone exception being his tolerance level for any conspiracy talk.    

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“Oh, who cares?’’ Parcells growled. “Catch the ball. I don’t care if they put jellyfish in there. Just catch it and kick it.’’  

Jellyfish, huh? That sounds like a matter for the NFL’s competition committee to decide, but Parcells’ point is well taken. Romo’s flub was one of the league’s most unforgettable do-or-die moments in recent memory, and no matter how it happened, that game, like the shinier-than-usual football used on that play, slipped away from the Cowboys’ grasp.    

“The irony is that now they’re talking about the PAT being so automatic that they’re going to think about changing how they do that,’’ said Holmgren, of the length of that aborted Cowboys field goal attempt, which was no longer than a point-after try. “Bill and I have talked about it since on a number of occasions and he told me that was his Christmas present to me.’’

“I thought we had a chance that year’’

The Cowboys were a 9-7 wild-card entry in the NFC playoffs that season, while Seattle won the weak NFC West at 9-7, a year after its 2005 Super Bowl trip and loss to Pittsburgh in Detroit. It was during the 2006 regular season that Romo, a fourth-year backup, first emerged as the Cowboys’ starter, replacing the struggling veteran Drew Bledsoe at halftime of Week 7. Dallas initially surged under Romo, winning five of his first six starts, including a Week 11 home upset of Peyton Manning and the previously undefeated Colts.   

But the Cowboys cooled off, dropping three of their last four games, and entered the playoffs on the heels of an embarrassing eight-point loss at home to a woeful Detroit Lions club that finished 3-13. Seattle wasn’t exactly red-hot upon reaching the playoffs either. The Seahawks stood 8-4 in early December, then sweated out three losses in a row to endanger their postseason hopes. They finally steadied themselves and wrapped up the NFC West and the conference’s No. 4 seed with a Week 17 win at Tampa Bay, and moved on to meet the No. 5-seeded Cowboys in the first round.  

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Parcells, in his fourth season coaching the Cowboys, with another year left on his contract, was surprisingly hopeful about his team’s chances that January, despite its late-season slump and status as a wild-card qualifier. He saw plenty of youthful promise on his roster, and thought just one playoff upset might ignite a run to the Super Bowl -- which would have been his fourth as a head coach, with a record third different team.   

“I was at the age and the experience level in my life where you’re not just playing to have a winning season, you’re trying to win the Super Bowl,’’ said Parcells, who led the 1986 and ‘90 Giants to Super Bowl titles, and lost a Super Bowl coaching the 1996 Patriots. “Your mentality is once you’ve done that a couple times and been in it a few times, then you’re just always aspiring in that direction.    

“Although we didn’t have a great team in Dallas that year, the next week’s opponent would have been the [No. 1 seeded] Bears [in the NFC divisional round], and I felt like we would match up very well with them. They wound up playing the Colts in the Super Bowl, who we had beaten in the regular season when they were undefeated. So I felt this was a real good opportunity for us. I knew playing Seattle out there would be formidable, and we didn’t play great that night and neither did they, but I had a pretty good young team in Dallas, and personnel-wise it was getting better. So I thought we had a chance that year. I thought we had a good chance, but that opportunity kind of went out the window.’’

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The game that Saturday night at what was then known as Qwest Field in Seattle ebbed and flowed, but Dallas built a 17-13 lead entering the fourth quarter, going ahead on a 93-yard kickoff return touchdown from little-known, undrafted rookie Miles Austin (it was the first kickoff return touchdown in the Cowboys’ long playoff-game history). Seattle scratched back and retook a narrow 21-20 lead in the fourth quarter, on a safety and a touchdown, but Dallas was driving inside of the final two minutes and found itself facing a 3rd-and-7 situation at the Seattle 8.    

When Romo hit tight end Jason Witten for seven yards and an apparent first down at the 1, the Seahawks burned their final timeout and looked finished, with the Cowboys in position to bleed the clock and either punch it in for the touchdown or convert the chip-shot field goal for the win. But replay official Dale Hamer called for what wound up being a lengthy review of the spot on Witten’s catch, and things changed dramatically when it was determined that Witten had indeed come up a half-yard shy of the first down. Referee Walt Anderson re-marked the ball halfway between the 1 and the 2, leaving Dallas facing a 4th-and-1 with 1:19 remaining.   

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With going for the touchdown no longer an option on fourth down, on came Gramatica, for what seemed to be the tap-in field goal. Both Parcells and Holmgren mentally hung the three points on the scoreboard and went about preparing for the remaining portion of the game. The Seahawks would have a little more than a minute to counter the Dallas score, and the Cowboys would have to play some defense if they were going to win their first playoff game in 10 years.    

“I didn’t even see it,’’ Holmgren said, of Romo’s fumble on the hold. “I didn’t see that happen. They’re lining up and I just assumed it was done. So I turned around and I went over to [Seattle quarterback Matt] Hasselbeck, and said, ‘OK, here’s how we’re going to win this thing.’ And I was talking about plays with him, and we’re going to do this, this and this, and then I hear this big roar from the crowd and I turn around, and I see Romo running with the ball. Of course we tackled him, but he almost scored on that, before [strong saftey Jordan] Babineaux got him. But I kind of missed the whole thing.     

“In that situation, I’m just thinking if we get a little bit of a return here and complete a couple of balls, we’ve got a chance to win this thing. So let’s just calm down and get it done. But then, it didn’t have to happen that way. It didn’t work out that way at all.’’    

Much to Romo’s ever-lasting chagrin. The snap from Cowboys’ long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur was perfect, but the ball slid through Romo’s hands as he was crouched in the holder’s position. As he fumbled to get a grip on it, Gramatica finished his approach, but had no ball to kick. Romo did the only thing he could do at that point, picking the ball up and taking off around the left side in pursuit of either the end zone or the first down marker at the 1. And for a long second or two, it looked like he had clear sailing to unexpected hero status, a play for which he would have been toasted instead of roasted for years to come.   

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But at the last moment, Babineaux, whose nickname became “Big-play Babs’’ based largely on that Johnny-on-the-spot play, dove from behind and tripped up Romo just shy of the first down, saving what would have been a certain touchdown. As Romo, the picture of dejection, sat on the field, burying his helmeted head in his hands, the Seahawks and their fans rejoiced at the near-miraculous turn of events. Romo practically grew goat horns before our eyes.   

For many NFL fans around the country watching the game on NBC, the reaction to Romo’s extraordinary and excruciating gaffe was along the lines of: “Holy fill-in-the-blank. Did that just really happen?’’      

But by the time the TV cameras found Parcells on the Dallas sideline, the look of disgust and disbelief on his face told the reality of the situation. There was still 1:14 left on the clock, but the Cowboys season felt unmistakably over, ended by a shocking failure on one of football’s simplest maneuvers.     

“You know what I was thinking about when we were getting ready to kick that field goal?’’ Parcell said. “What defense we should lead with when we kicked off to them. I was already talking to [Cowboys defensive coordinator] Mike Zimmer about what we were going to run on defense against their hurry-up offense. That’s where my mind was.’’

“It was just a quirk of fate’’

Ladouceur was another first-person witness who actually never saw the fateful play unfold. The long-snapper fired the ball back to Romo, then went about his business of blocking Seahawks. He didn’t piece together what had transpired until he reached the Dallas sideline and asked a teammate if his snap made him the culprit in this football tragedy?    

“Obviously Seattle’s crowd is pretty loud, and I knew something had went wrong when I heard them yell as loud as they did,’’ said Ladouceur, now in his 10th season as the team’s longsnapper, and one of just three remaining Cowboys players still on the roster, joining Romo and Witten. “As a snapper, when you hear that, obviously you think you botched the snap and something happened. But the next thing I know I see Tony running for the end zone. And when I got back to the sideline, I found out that I snapped the ball fine.    

“Obviously it sucked. It’s a tough way to lose. Especially when you’re three points away from shutting the door on them.’’  

In the game’s final 1:14, Seattle used up almost all of the clock, leaving the Cowboys time for just a last-second Hail Mary pass that was definitely not full of grace, and Dallas went down in a galling defeat. Romo and the Cowboys have been back to Seattle just once in the interim, losing 27-7 in Week 2 of 2012, and now they return to the scene of Romo’s crime for a showdown between two first-place teams in the NFC.   

Ladouceur said he and Romo have “never really talked about’’ the dropped snap in the ensuing years ("I don’t remember negative things very much anymore," Romo told reporters Wednesday, "I kind of let those things slide by"), and while he thinks a new, perhaps shinier K ball, or kicking ball, was inserted into the game at some point during the long replay review of the spot, he doesn’t see conspiratorial undertones being at work that night.   

“I managed to snap that ball fine, and obviously if I can snap it fine, usually you think the ball’s OK,’’ Ladouceur said. “I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary. It was a little cool [that night, 44 degrees and overcast], a little misty, but I think it was just one of those fluke plays that happen maybe 1 out of 1,000 times. I think it was just a quirk of fate.’’   

The NFL started designating 12 footballs per game as kicking balls for the 1999 season, to keep the league’s kickers and punters from doctoring the footballs they used in games to their advantage, in a quest for more distance or hang time. Early on, kickers, punters, longsnappers and holders complained often that those balls were put into the game with way too much new-ball sheen to them, and that they were not given enough time in the pre-game hours to suitably brush or rough up those balls in order to remove some of that slickness.   

From watching TV replays, you can see the ball that Romo dropped appeared to be very shiny, with the reflection of the stadium’s lights glistening on the ball. But it didn’t quite rise to the level of a greased pigskin, Lodouceur said.   

“We didn’t get much time to beat them up, or rough them up back then, and now they do give us more time [in the pre-game] to do that,’’ he said. “Back then if you went through more than a couple K balls during the game, ball No. 3 or 4 were straight out of the box, so that could have happened in this case. But I don’t remember it being that bad.  

“Sometimes they were shiny, and sometimes they were real slick. But that was just the K ball thing, depending on which ball they gave us. I didn’t think it was a conspiracy or gamesmanship type of thing. I thought it was maybe a little different than the ball we used the whole game, but I was still able to snap it pretty well, and usually it’s a good ball if I can snap it well. It’s hard to pinpoint why it happened. But it happened, and you just don’t know what to think.’’   

Holmgren is known for his sly and slightly mischievous sense of humor, and he’s amused that there are conspiracy theorists who still persist in claiming the slickness of the ball used on the game’s pivotal play was instrumental in determining the outcome, and perhaps was an act of deviousness.    

“I remember when those rumors and those feelings came out originally, and I understand the sentiment there,’’ Holmgren said. “The K balls probably were a little different than the game balls, but there were K balls snapped and kicked all the time. Now the idea that a different kind of K ball got thrown into the game, a slicker one, nah, that didn’t happen. It’s a fun thing to talk about or a fun thing to write about, but that wasn’t the case. That ball came from the same bag of balls we used the whole game. 

“I remember it being a cool night, but very clear though. It wasn’t raining or anything. It was a nice night for football. But, look, it was a horrible thing for Tony to have to deal with. I would admit to that. But to be honest, I didn’t think too much about Tony at the time. I was very, very happy that we won.’’

“I knew I couldn’t do it any more’’  

Parcells, by comparison, was beyond disconsolate. He later told Holmgren, his long-time friend and coaching peer, it was that game, with that cruel twist of an ending, that made him realize he no longer had the desire and will to continue coaching. Enough was enough.   

“He said that one was a little too much to handle,’’ Holmgren said. “When you lose a game like that, and everything else is right and you prepared and worked hard and had a good gameplan, and you have a chance to win it, and then something like that happens, it pushes you right over the top. He just said ‘That’s it. That’s when I knew it was over. I can’t do it any more.’"   

As was his custom after road games, Parcells, on the plane ride home, sat up near the pilots and tried to regain some perspective on the night’s unexplainable events. But what came into focus for him was his lack of enthusiasm at the prospect of starting the long offseason, and beginning the football coach’s task of pushing that rock back up the hill. Not this time, Parcells decided. Not after that particular kick to the gut.   

“What happens to you, when a really genuine opportunity is lost and the season is gone, you get on that plane and now you’ve got to ride four hours back [to Dallas],’’ Parcells, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013, said. “I was up with the pilots, and it was a nice night for flying, but you know, you just, I don’t know how to put it, but you’re mentally defeated at that point. Because now you’ve got to re-sign some of your coaches to contracts. You’ve got free agency coming up. You’ve got the offseason program coming up. You’ve got your OTAs and your mini-camps and your training camp and your regular season, all to try and get back to the same point you were just at.  

“That’s really what I was thinking about on that plane. I was saying to myself, ‘Hey, Parcells, you just don’t want to do this any more. You just don’t want to go through it again.’ I knew I had a year to go on my deal, and I enjoyed being in Dallas, but I knew I couldn’t do it any more. In coaching, it’s either the out-house or the castle, and there’s nothing in between.’’

Nobody was more tortured by that game’s ending than Romo, of course. That game provided the first real stroke of the brush that painted his reputation as a standout player who seemed to make the costliest of mistakes at the most crucial of times. Witih Romo making his first career playoff appearance, that game was supposed to be his coming-out party. But it instead ended what was a breakthrough Pro Bowl season for him on the most bitter note imaginable. Seattle, to be sure, left Romo sleepless for quite a while.   

“Tony apologized to the whole team,’’ Ladouceur said. “He said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ He felt really bad, and it was a really bad thing for him to go through. But after that, he could have just folded. But it’s been almost eight years later and he’s still playing at a very high level. I think he kind of used that night as fuel to get better. You never know with something like that happening to someone’s career, what it might do to you. It’s just one of those bad moments he wished had never happened.’’

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