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An NFL tie-breaker involving a tie, plus other memorable deadlocks

The 272nd and final game of this NFL regular season will be played Sunday night, and, in a scenario that could become another Roger Goodell nightmare, the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers might be motivated to “tie one on” in order to make the playoffs.

There’s actually a tie-breaking scenario where if the Raiders and Chargers play to a tie, they’ll both make the playoffs, with 9-7-1 records. According to NFL Network analyst Adam Beasley, one other thing would have to occur earlier in the day for this plot to play out: The Indianapolis Colts would need to lose to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s unlikely, given the Colts are 15-point favorites and are fighting to make the playoffs, while the only thing the Jags are playing for is the top pick in the 2022 draft.

But as the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins can attest, you best not take the Jags lightly, even if you are double-digit favorites. Both the Bills and Dolphins suffered inexplicable losses to Jacksonville. Buffalo’s 9-6 debacle in northern Florida in early November cost the Bills a shot at the No. 1 overall seed, while Dolphins’ three-point loss to their in-state rivals in Week Six is one of those games they’ll grumble about while analyzing why they narrowly missed making this post-season.

So, let’s say the Colts lose. What’s to stop Raiders Coach Rich Bisaccia and Chargers Coach Brandon Staley from agreeing to run nothing but kneel downs throughout regulation and overtime in order to punch their playoff tickets with a nil-nil tie? Wouldn’t that be something? Could very well be the most boring and highest-rated game of the year.

Now, I don’t for a minute expect this to happen. I think the Colts are going to run over, through and around the hapless Jags. And that will force the Chargers and Raiders to win their way into the playoffs. But if this tie-tie scheme came true, it would be a blow to the NFL’s integrity. It clearly wasn’t what Commissioner Goodell or the schedule-makers had in mind when they moved the Raiders-Chargers game to prime-time.

One way to guard against such storylines is to have every game start at the same time on the final week of the regular season. In order to make things fair for West Coast teams playing each other, you could have all games start at 3 p.m. Eastern time (noon, Pacific.) Of course, this won’t happen because the networks want prime-time games on Saturday and Sunday of the last weekend.

While scouring the tie-breaker pages on the NFL website, I discovered the last-resort tie-breaker was a coin toss. I guess that would make for some compelling television, especially if three or more clubs were involved. You could really play it up, and conduct it in a stadium. No doubt in my mind Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park would be packed in hopes of watching Josh Allen make the right “heads-or-tails” call.

This talk of playing for a tie got me to thinking about some memorable football ties.

One involved one of the greatest college games of all-time during the fall of 1966. Top-ranked Notre Dame squared off against second-ranked Michigan State in a clash of titans that ended in a 10-10 deadlock in front of 80,000 fans in East Lansing, Mich. Games weren’t settled in overtime in those days. Once regulation play ended, so did the game. What stood out is that during Notre Dame’s final series that mid-November day in front of a hostile crowd, Irish Coach Ara Parseghian opted to run out the clock in order to preserve the tie.

There weren’t any college football playoffs back then, so the wire service polls were everything. Parseghian figured if that final regular-season game ended in a deadlock, Notre Dame would retain its top spot and be declared mythical national champions. Sure enough, both the writers’ and coaches’ polls kept the Irish and the Spartans in their same positions following that classic. Parseghian’s controversial decision was pilloried by columnists from coast-to-coast. “Three jeers for ol’ Notre Dame” and “Let’s tie one for the Gipper” were common refrains, playing off the school’s famous fight song and the “Win one for the Gipper” speech delivered by Irish coach Knute Rockne in homage to dying Notre Dame legend George Gipp. Michigan State Coach Duffy Daugherty wasn’t pleased either, and in his post-game press conference delivered the unforgettable line that “a tie is like kissing your sister.”

Another tie that comes to mind is the one that cost Syracuse a 12-0 record and claims on a second national football championship during the 1988 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Thanks to Auburn Coach Pat Dye and a kicker inappropriately named Win Lyle, the Orangemen left the French Quarter fit to be tied.

With time running out and his team trailing by three with the ball on SU’s 13-yard-line, Dye went for the tie rather than the victory. Lyle’s 30-yard field goal resulted in a 16-16 final score, prompting SU coach Dick MacPherson to fling his crumpled-up game plan to the turf. Interestingly, three weeks earlier, Coach Mac had opted to go for the win, and running back Michael Owens took a pitch from quarterback Don McPherson for the winning two-point conversion in a one-point victory against West Virginia.

A Syracuse radio station, angered by Dye’s passive decision, encouraged angry fans to send the Auburn coach the ugliest ties they could find. An estimated 2,000 ties flooded Dye’s campus mail box. He signed each one with the 16-16 score, and they were sold, pumping nearly $20,000 into Auburn’s scholarship coffers.

Some ties can indeed be heroic. In 1968, Harvard miraculously scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds to tie Ivy League arch-rival Yale. That led to a famous headline in Harvard’s student newspaper: HARVARD BEATS YALE, 29-29. The Crimson’s offensive coordinator that day was Pat Stark, who also gained fame as an All-American quarterback at Syracuse and a nationally renowned small college coach at the University of Rochester. That Harvard team also featured an offensive lineman who would go on to earn fame in Hollywood: Actor Tommy Lee Jones.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

One comment

  1. Good stuff Scott. Happy New Year. Jerry

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