We’re mere days away from the 20th anniversary of one of the most controversial finishes, not just in NFL history, but in all of sports. A playoff game coming down to the final seconds when one of the wildest, most unpredictable plays happens. What happened on the field in Nashville, Tennessee twenty years ago has been debated time and again, with every Titans fan sure that it was a lateral, and every Bills fan determined that it was a forward pass.
Bills fans, I know you don’t want to hear this. The truth hurts, in fact, sometimes it’s downright painful. But the truth will set you free and today can be the day you start your new life. The one where you accept the truth. The one where you come to grips with the reality you know you’ve been denying. Today can be the day we exorcise the demons living in the deepest, darkest parts of your soul.
The officials were right to not overturn the call that fateful day in Nashville.
No Stranger to Pain
I may not have been born and raised as Buffalo Bills fan, but as your resident Detroit Lions fan, I can assure you I understand pain.
- One playoff win in the Super Bowl era
- Zero playoff wins since 1992
- First team to go 0-16
We even had a quarterback do this (in a game we lost by 2 points, no less):
I’m acquainted with grief. As much as I love the Lions though, my first love will always be the Michigan Wolverines. If you cut me open, I’d bleed maize and blue. In 2015, I had the displeasure of being in the stands during a play ever bit as wild, unpredictable and painful as the Music City Miracle. In Michigan, it’s known as “Trouble With the Snap.”
Talk about a kick to the nuts. To lose like that, to a bitter, hated rival, is beyond words. So, I understand the pain you all felt that day. I also understand the denial of the Music City Miracle as a legitimate play. It’s a defense mechanism to protect against a wound to painful for words.
Today, I walk with you, dear friend, as we navigate through the pain and arrive at the liberating truth.
An Optical Illusion
I was watching the 1999 Bills vs. Titans wild card game with my good friend (and EIC of Buffalo Fanatics), Adam Nannini. I sat next to him in my parents’ living room as the final play unfolded and tears streamed down his face, soaking the front of his royal blue Doug Flutie jersey. He and I were both adamant that the pass was forward and would be overturned upon review, and for good reason.
It looked forward. Frank Wycheck’s body is behind the 25 yard line as he turns to throw. Kevin Dyson’s body is completely in front of the 25 yard line and he’s moving back toward the 25 as he catches it. When you first watch the play, it’s impossible not to be thrown off by the positioning of Wycheck and Dyson. Every sane individual watching on TV had to think that was a forward pass when they first saw it.
You have to consider the camera angles on the live view. Viewing the play from closer to midfield, it absolutely looks like a forward pass. Viewing the play from behind, it’s harder to tell. Your eyes can be tricked based on angles and player positioning, especially when your heart is involved. Adam Schefter wrote a piece for ESPN a few years ago in which he explains why he’ll never believe it was a lateral. He was seated in the press box that day and apparently nothing will change his mind.
“Two trusted and reliable sources confirmed to me it was a forward lateral. My left eye and my right eye.” – Adam Schefter
The problem is our eyes can be tricked. We’re all familiar with optical illusions. It’s when we perceive something as different than it actually is. We’re tricked into believing something that doesn’t match reality.
Take this illusion for example. The circles are all the same color but some look orange, some look blueish, and others look gold. On first glance, your eyes will trick you. Remove the lines, and the truth is seen. The circles are identical.
Sorry Schefty, but you can’t believe everything your eyes see. You can’t just watch the TV replay of the Music City Miracle and make your judgment. Remove the illusion and seek clarity.
You just watched an optical illusion.
Set your feelings and preconceived ideas aside for a minute and try to be an unbiased observer. There is one camera angle that is looking right down the 25 yard line. Fortunately, this play occurred right on top of giant white line that runs the entire width of the field. It’s this straight, white line that allows us to remove the illusions and see the truth: the ball started farther past the 25 yard line than it ended up when Dyson caught it.
Here is Wycheck turning and starting his throwing motion. His feet are right up to the 25 yard line. His arm is moving into this passing motion, extending away from his body and clearly across the 25 yard line.
The pass is now in flight. Notice it’s distance from the white line now and compare it to the next frame where Dyson catches it. This removes any chance of illusion.
Dyson is just about to receive the ball. While his body is clearly further forward than Wycheck, the ball is arriving to him slightly closer to the white line than it was in the previous picture.
In case you needed more, here are two of the above shots meshed together.
You’ll notice the 25 yard line is perfectly matched up so there’s no distorting the angles to show something that isn’t there. Now for a rather elementary exercise, 1) take a ruler, 2) put the edge of the ruler on the ball that has just been released from Wycheck’s hand, 3) draw a line parallel to the 25 yard line, and 4) see if the ball in Dyson’s frame is on the left or right of the line you just drew. No illusions, just concrete believable evidence.
The play landed at #3 on the NFL Network’s list of most controversial plays. The video evidence from the above pictures is seen clearly and former official and Fox NFL mainstay Mike Perriera confirms “it was going backwards…not a lot, but going backwards. Certainly not going forward.”
Remember, the NFL rulebook classifies a lateral as “any pass that is not going forward.” Even if the ball was going straight sideways, it’d still be considered a lateral. There is nothing about the flight of the ball in the pictures above or the video shot down the 25 yard line that gives credence to the notion that it was a forward pass.
This play is also unusual because it occurred in the first year of replay and coach’s challenges. There’s nothing like having one of the most controversial plays occur in the playoffs during the first year of replay!
Remember the rule for overturning a call on the field. There must be indisputable evidence that the call on the field was wrong. When the Music City Miracle happened, it was called a lateral on the field. The play underwent a lengthy review when referee Phil Luckett ultimately came to the only conclusion possible: there was no evidence to overturn the call.
It certainly appears from the most direct replay angles discussed above that the ball traveled backwards ever so slightly. The officials were correct to stay with the call on the field.
Blame the Right Person
The man Bills fans should actually be angry with is head coach Wade Phillips. Phillips deserved to lose this game when he made one of the worst coaching decisions in history. After watching Doug Flutie replace the overpaid Rob Johnson in 1998 and go 7-3 in relief and led the Bills to the playoffs. In 1999, Flutie led the Bills to an10-5 record and sat out the Week 17 game when their playoff destination was already determined. Johnson had a nice game in relief and Phillips hands him the keys for the playoff game? Inexcusable.
Johnson played terribly against the Titans, going 10-22 for 131 yards and a fumble lost. Yet there sat Flutie on the sideline all game long. Flutie deserved better. Bills fans deserved better. Wade Phillips got exactly what he deserved.
It’s time to look in the mirror and admit the truth. That pass went backwards. If you can’t bring yourself to say it, at least acknowledge that the officials were right to not overturn the call. We’re a few days away from the 20th anniversary of that infamous January day. The Bills franchise has suffered mightily since that play but hope is here, things are looking up, and the future is bright.
This might be the year that the Bills break through and win in the playoffs for the first time since the Jim Kelly days. If the football gods are going to smile on the city of Buffalo again, the fans need to do their part and admit the hardest truth imaginable. The Music City Miracle was a heartbreaking way to lose a playoff game. But it was legit.
This therapy session is over.