Past and Present in the Great OT Debate
It was May 3, 1996, and the jubilant Milwaukee Mustangs cavorted about on the turf of the St. Louis edifice then bearing the classy, non-corporate moniker of “Kiel Center,” believing they had just defeated the St. Louis Stampede after recovering a misplayed, off-the-net, overtime kickoff in the end zone.
Then, as now, overtime rules guaranteed possession to both teams. But as the 9,000-plus fans lingered, awaiting a resolution as the officials huddled, they knew the basic tenet of the overtime structure -- that each team was owed a possession. And the Stampede hadn’t had one at all.
The fans were appeased by the subsequent explanation -- the Stampede were still in need of a chance. The Mustangs would eventually be satisfied by the result; St. Louis scored a touchdown, but Milwaukee won 42-41 when Tom Whelihan’s attempt at a drop-kick conversion sailed well wide of the soft netting.
It is worth re-visiting this long-forgotten game between two since-dissolved teams because it is intractably bound with the now-crucial specification in the rule book, the last sentence of Rule 15.3: “A muffed kick or successful onside kick will not count as a possession.”
The proceedings that evening in St. Louis were witnessed only by those in the building. But those of Sunday at America West Arena were witnessed by a national audience, including a group watching with the keenest of perspectives -- the players and coaches of the expansion Colorado Crush.
Still lingering in the afterglow of the franchise’s first win, their eyes turned to the television in the locker room, where the next two opponents -- Dallas on this coming Friday, Arizona nine days later -- were preparing for overtime. They watched as Nelson Garner successfully placed the short kickoff out of Dallas’ reach. And they turned back to their celebration as Chris Horn scored, believing the matter was decided.
“I thought the game was over,” Crush head coach Bob Beers said. “I think everybody in our locker room did, too.”
Of course, it wasn’t, as has been thoroughly documented and debated on this site, on its message boards, via its e-mail list, and in other realms beyond. What’s left are the ramifications, especially for a coach like Beers, whose gambling, go-for-it style reflects that of his Broncos boss, executive vice president and head coach Mike Shanahan -- a man who, this past season, called on a rookie running back in his first NFL game to carry the ball on fourth-and-1 from the Broncos 38 with a three-point lead in the fourth quarter. (Of course, that back was Clinton Portis, who’d justify Shanahan’s faith by not only making the first down, but running for 15 yards and beginning the most prolific rookie season for an NFL back in nearly two decades.)
In just five games as an AFL head coach, Beers has shown no hesitation about taking gambles of his own, already establishing a penchant for using the on-side kick at unexpected moments. So for he and the league’s other sideline minds, a strategic wrinkle has now been ironed out of possibility.
“What it does is maybe it takes that element of surprise out of the overtime. … I thought it took a lot of courage to on-side kick it and they recovered it and scored,” he said. “That’s up to the blue-ribbon committee on rules. If they made it that way, that’s the rule. That’ll eliminate the on-side kick in overtime.”
But what if Arizona had recovered the kickoff that followed Horn’s touchdown?
“If they on-side kick again and they recover it and they score, obviously the game’s over,” Beers said with a chuckle, “because (the Desperados’) possession doesn’t mean anything.”
If anything, Sunday’s events serve as a reminder of the sport’s youth. It’s 17 years old; so it is what it is becoming, with a rulebook like the U.S. Constitution -- designed for ongoing tweaks to further refine the sport.
And with Danny White’s decision to call for the on-side kick, we learned once again that just when it seems like every circumstance and permutation have been seen, along comes something to shake our sense of certainty of what we know about the game we enjoy. And it serves as another milestone in the league’s development -- a full-fledged rules debate. The kind that has been so often in the NFL; the kind that keeps fans, league officials and talk-show hosts busy for hours; the kind that one hopes will someday stir the same kind of passionate, public discussion of the 50-yard game.
Andrew Mason was at the Tampa Bay Storm`s first home game on June 1, 1991 and has followed the game ever since. While in college, he served as content editor and co-founder of The Storm Shelter, a Web site which covered the Tampa Bay Storm on the Internet from 1996-99. He also volunteered with the team`s media relations department in 1998 and currently contributes to ColoradoCrush.com. He's covered the NFL for various on-line outlets since 1999.