One week earlier, a group of New York Giants had formed a circle on the sideline at Candlestick Park and prayed for a placekicker’s success. Sunday, Pepper Johnson and a few teammates knelt at Tampa Stadium and publicly petitioned for another kicker’s failure. Some football players place an inordinate amount of faith in the theory of The One Great Scorer.
Perhaps the Buffalo Bills, like the San Francisco 49ers before them, were too sure of themselves to beseech a higher power. Maybe they just believe in worshipping privately. For whatever reason, Matt Bahr made the 42-yard field goal in San Francisco that propelled the Giants into the NFL’s championship game and, seven days later, Scott Norwood missed the 47-yard attempt that would have dealt the Giants a 22-20 defeat. And Bill Parcells, the winning coach, actually appeared on network television after his team’s 20-19 escape in Super Bowl XXV and said, “I realized a long time ago ... that God is playing some of these games, and He was on our side today.”
If anything, Parcells and Johnson appeared to be shortchanging a superb coaching job and a magnificent effort. That the potent Bills were forced to rely on a last-gasp try from the far end of Norwood’s range said volumes about what the Giants were able to do against such a dangerous opponent. They had given so much of themselves, and yet, as had been the case in the NFC Championship Game, Johnson and a few teammates couldn’t watch the play that would determine whether they won or lost.
“I didn’t look at it,” Johnson said. “I didn’t see Bahr’s until a few days later on television. This time, me and Mark Collins and a few other guys knelt together. Collins was mumbling, ‘Miss, miss.’ I just asked the Lord, ‘This one time, let the guy miss the ball.’ ”
Kickers apparently don’t hold the same beliefs as the big, padded men who bang bodies for most of 60 minutes. They’ve got too many things on their minds to search the heavens for assistance. In San Francisco, Bahr concentrated on what he had to do when the ball was snapped. Norwood went through similar mental exercises Sunday.
He’s a meticulous man, Norwood is. Earlier in the week, linebacker Cornelius Bennett had noted, “He must comb his hair and brush his teeth five times a day.” There was time to do neither once the Bills took possession of the ball at their 10-yard line with 2:16 left. He kicked a few balls into a net along the sideline, took a few deep breaths and visualized winning the Super Bowl at the end. “Positive thoughts,” he said later.
Certainly, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. All it required was a strong leg, tunnel vision and nerves of steel. The leg didn’t fail him. Whether the other two did, only he knows. “I kicked the ball too hard,” he said after the ball sailed wide to the right, leading to a second game-winning demonstration in two weeks along the Giants’ sideline and prompting Steve DeOssie to rush onto the field with his camcorder even though four seconds remained. “I needed to get more follow-through, to bring the ball in. I took my best cut at the time. I don’t have to tell you I’m disappointed.”
His teammates told him it was all right, the way they’ve been trained to do since Pop Warner League. And the coach, Marv Levy, said, “We all still love him.” And probably it shouldn’t have come to this if the Bills had played the way they are capable of playing, the way they played the previous two weeks.
“I don’t think it should have come down to his foot,” center Kent Hull said. “We had some opportunities to score more points in the first half. We had a chance to put it away. There were plays to be made. We just didn’t make them.”
At one stage, the Bills led 12-3 and had the football near midfield. But in a game of such sharply contrasting styles that it appeared to match the old black-and-white Philco against the wall-sized color sets in use now, the Giants rallied not once but twice to forge a lead. And the Bills couldn’t overcome the final deficit even though the team that runs a two-minute offense for the whole game had the opportunity to run the two-minute drill at the end.
Norwood had to save the Bills, and he wasn’t up to the task. “I needed a strong kick,” he said in a flat voice approximately a half hour after the moment. “The ball had to be struck hard. It’s not going to be easy to put this behind me. I’m sure I’ll come around in time, but I’m disappointed that I let a lot of people down.”
Of all the people to watch the long attempt slide off to the side, perhaps Bahr understood best. “I feel for Scott, I really do,” said the Giants’ kicker, who was successful on both his field-goal attempts after kicking five in a winning effort the previous week. “That’s got to be really tough for him over there. A 47-yard field goal, under any circumstances, is tough.”
Perhaps it wouldn’t have come down to Norwood, who has spent six seasons with the Bills and never kicked a field goal beyond 49 yards, if the Giants hadn’t been so successful running the ball. As long as the Giants held the ball, Buffalo’s hurry-up offense was forced to stand and wait. “Hey, we squeaked by San Francisco,” tackle Jumbo Elliott said with a smile. “Then people said we’d never beat Buffalo. Who’da thunk it?”
Remarkably, the Giants controlled the ball twice as long as the Bills. Just as remarkably, there were no turnovers in a game that causes mature men to shake. And at the end it came down to one isolated moment of the kind a kicker never forgets.
“I’m certain it’s something I’ll never forget completely,” Norwood said. “But I’m not going to carry it out on the field with me the next time I kick.”
Not surprisingly, the kicker never mentioned the Almighty. God may win games, but, of course, he never loses them. But don’t look for the plot of Super Bowl XXV in the Bible, the Torah or even the Koran.
This was a game from Aesop’s Fable. The tortoise edged the hare. Again.