In the crazy old National Conference East, one of the few divisional races in 1975 which does not require amphetamines to sustain interest, the Cardiac Cardinals of St. Louis littered their artificial turf with the usual quota of coronaries last Sunday and stung the Washington Redskins 20-17 in overtime, courtesy of those little guys who dart and dash and hang in the air and are everything you believed in back in the games on the vacant lots when you were a kid. It was one of the season's wildest affairs; the only thing that kept it from being the wildest is that the Cardinals play one like this every week. In all the confusion and excitement you would swear that Arch rising up over the Mississippi River and Busch Memorial Stadium signifies that this is the Gateway to Madness.
As is their custom, the Cardinals fell behind the Redskins 14-3 in the battle for the division lead, and that is the way it stood with less than 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. But, heck, gang, that's just when St. Louis starts to play football. The Cardinals managed to scratch and claw and fool around and finally get this one all tied up at 17-17 with just 20 seconds to go on a play that will be argued and complained about and cheered and rerun in slow motion for at least the rest of the week—or until they do it again. And everyone knew that with this kind of good fortune it was only a question of when Jim Bakken would kick the winning field goal in overtime. Which is what Bakken did from the 27-yard line after eight extra minutes.
Let's give that last minute and 43 seconds of the regulation game a proper buildup. The Redskins are leading 17-10, and to make matters even more dreadful for the Cards, they have, in their infinite wisdom, no time-outs left. But they do have the ball at Washington's 39-yard line. Since St. Louis has the ball, Terry Metcalf can't return a punt for a touchdown, so that's out. It will have to be something conjured up between the calm Jim Hart and, more than likely, St. Louis' other sandlot gnat, Mel Gray.
One of the first things Hart does is throw a pass to Ike Harris, who doesn't remember to get out of bounds and stop the clock. This moves the Cardinals to the Redskins' 25-yard line, but the seconds are ticking away, and Hart has to waste one to stop that. There's 1:07 left.
November 24, 1975
The next pass Hart throws goes to Earl Thomas, who is crossing over the middle and who has been the most unreliable receiver of the game, having already dropped three balls. Thomas catches this one, however, and now St. Louis is at the Washington six, 50 seconds to go. Three more passes go careening around in the end zone and fall incomplete, but they do stop the clock. Now there are just 25 seconds left and it is fourth down. How will it happen?
Well, like this. Hart drops back and the din in the stadium is indescribable as he fires the ball at Mel Gray, who is about a yard deep in the end zone and roughly two yards up in the air, perched there, as if suspended by wires. The ball meets his chest and arms, he has it, and now he's coming down, but here comes Washington's Pat Fischer to smack into Gray like the secondary ax murderer that he is. Gray and the ball go separate ways as all three crash to the rug.
The Cardinals are leaping around, reacting jubilantly to the touchdown, and the Redskins are leaping around, reacting jubilantly to the incompletion and the victory they believe they have won on Randy Johnson's touchdown passes to Charley Taylor and Mike Thomas and Mark Moseley's field goal, all of which came much earlier and were no longer pertinent.
Down on the field one official has signaled a touchdown, and another official has signaled an incompletion, and what appears to be a convention of red-jerseyed Cardinals and white-jerseyed Redskins—perhaps a thousand of them—is taking place.
Let us now focus on the most important characters in the whole drama, the group of men known as game officials, headed by Referee Frank Silva. They have gone over to a quiet corner of the field to have a private chat. The players stare at them. The 49,919 in the stadium are making a peculiar sound. It resembles a long, muffled threat. The officials break up their huddle, and Silva lifts his arms in a gesture that looks strangely to the Redskins like the thing you do when there's a touchdown. The stadium explodes, and up in an owner's box, the Redskins' Edward Bennett Williams looks like a lawyer who has just seen his client sentenced to the gas pipe.
Later, Referee Silva said, "Three officials ruled on the play. Two of them saw the receiver take possession of the ball in the end zone, hit the ground and fumble the ball. Those two officials signaled a touchdown. A third official did not see the touchdown signal. He saw a portion of the play, the player on the ground and the ball on the ground. He signaled no catch. When we explained the play to him, we agreed as a crew that it was a touchdown."
What the officials were saying is that Gray hung in the air long enough with the football so that it was a touchdown before Fischer got there to dislodge him from the ball.
With such luck, of course, the Cardiac Cards were destined to win the coin flip and get first possession of the ball in the sudden death. Washington never saw the ball again. Hart drove his team 55 yards, using Jim Otis on eight carries behind the blocking and biting of the werewolf guard, Conrad Dobler, until it was time for Bakken to kick the winning field goal, as he had done on the last play of the game to beat both Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Bakken, who has been kicking St. Louis field goals for 14 years now, got his 239th by just putting his toe into the ball. He said he never even saw the uprights. "I just knew I'd make it," he said. What he didn't know was that it would be so unpretty—a low flat line drive of a kick, but good.
These Cardinals are marvelous. They don't seem to have much going for them, except whatever electricity Metcalf can generate with his rushing or catching or kick returning or fumbling, or whatever can come from Hart sailing those bombs for Gray to chase down. They have a problem with turnovers because Metcalf isn't the only one who fumbles and because Hart is hurling more than his share of interceptions, but there they are, leading the National Conference East, one game ahead of both the Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys. Most people, who think Dallas or Washington always wins this division, forget that St. Louis won it last year.
This is the division that has had three overtime games so far this season, all among the top three teams—the one the Cards lost to Dallas, the one the Redskins won from Dallas and now the one the Cardinals have stolen from the Redskins. If there is anything that is going to keep people interested until the playoffs, what with teams like the Vikings and the Rams and the Raiders practically in them already and struggling to stay awake through their schedules, it is going to be the National East.
"I guess if there's a way to make a game closer, we'll think of it," said St. Louis Coach Don Coryell. "I don't like some of the decisions I make, but I have a lot of trust in Jim Bakken's foot. It's better than my judgment."
In seven of their nine games thus far, the Cardinals have fallen behind, sometimes so far that no one figured Hart could throw that long, or Metcalf or Gray could run the distance once they got ahold of the ball. In their last two games the Cards have come from 23-7 down to beat the Eagles and from 11 points behind to beat the Redskins, and both times they have done it as they dangled on the second hand of the clock.
Washington Coach George Allen felt that St. Louis had a little more help than they deserved last Sunday. "It's the first time I've ever seen the officials reverse a decision," he said.
That wasn't quite the way it happened, but Mel Gray will be in that holding pattern above the end zone—with or without the football—for quite a while. Possibly, all the way to the playoffs.