Dallas Hopes Flagging
San Francisco cornerback Rod Woodson and Dallas wide receiver Michael Irvin tumbled into the end zone with less than a minute to play, Troy Aikman’s pass flicking off Irvin’s fingers and a penalty flag falling to the ground.
Depending on your point of view, it was a bogus call.
One official called pass interference on Woodson, which would have given the Cowboys the ball at the 49er one-yard line with a chance to tie the score, maybe go on and win.
But another official ran over and said Woodson’s and Irvin’s feet had become entangled inadvertently, and with 68,657 fans in 3Com Park providing encouragement, the official suggested picking the penalty flag up.
The official who dropped the flag conceded. The penalty was waved off, and one play later the Cowboys were officially left for dead with San Francisco safety Tim McDonald intercepting an Aikman pass to secure a 17-10 victory.
Dallas (4-5), dropping below .500 in November for the first time since 1990, fell two games and a tie-breaker behind the NFC East Division-leading New York Giants, while the 49ers (8-1) rolled on in command of the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
“One ref said, ‘I got tripping and I saw him grabbing him,’ ” said Irvin in relaying the conversation between officials. “Another ref said, ‘I think they just got their feet tangled up--maybe you should pick it up.’ And the other guy says, ‘OK, if that’s what you think.’ ”
Woodson, one of the game’s all-time cornerbacks and assigned to shadow Irvin throughout the game, said there was contact, but in his “unbiased” opinion, “the ref made the right call.
“I would probably have been sent to the nuthouse if they hadn’t picked that flag up,” Woodson said. “If they had left it on the one guy’s judgment, the one who threw the flag, we would have been sitting there at the one-yard line with Dallas first and goal.”
Instead the pass was ruled incomplete.
“When I got down there, the back judge [Bill Lovett] said to me, ‘I saw a trip. That’s why I threw the flag,’ ” referee Bob McElwee said. “The field judge [Scott Green] said the trip was clearly incidental. The rule book is clear that incidental tripping is not a foul in that instance, so we had no foul. The rule book is clear in providing advice for how to handle that situation.”
Maybe just as pivotal, if not as controversial, were coaching calls made only minutes earlier by San Francisco’s Steve Mariucci and Dallas’ Barry Switzer.
Third and one at the Dallas 19-yard line, and with Emmitt Smith on the sideline since the first quarter because of a groin injury, the Cowboys were forced to run Sherman Williams. Williams was stuffed for no gain and the Cowboys were also penalized for illegal motion.
The 49ers had the option of declining the penalty and giving Dallas the choice of going for the two feet needed on fourth down or punting. Or, the 49ers could have accepted the five-yard penalty and allowed Dallas to repeat third down.
“That was a tough decision; we were rolling the dice there when we decided to decline the penalty,” Mariucci said. “I was just hoping they wouldn’t go for it on fourth down.”
With 4:33 to play, Switzer elected to have the Cowboys punt.
The Cowboys did not get the ball back until there was 2:15 to play--minus any timeouts. And yet they were able to move from their 25-yard line to the 49er 39 before Aikman’s end zone fling to Irvin.
“I learned something today--what this 49er-Cowboy rivalry is all about,” Mariucci said. “Whew.”
The 49ers, their record fat from playing the Rams, Falcons and Saints, who have a combined mark of 5-20, fell behind, 7-0, at halftime, and were going nowhere on offense.
But like the Cowboys, the 49ers have remained dominant in recent years by taking advantage of free agency, and against Dallas they relied on three of their biggest off-season acquisitions: Woodson, running back Garrison Hearst and offensive lineman Kevin Gogan.
While Woodson kept Irvin in check with six catches for 51 yards, it was Hearst, running behind Gogan, who laid out the Cowboys.
Hearst ran 22 times for 104 yards, including an eight-yard touchdown that tied the score in the third quarter. And after Richie Cunningham had given Dallas a 10-7 lead with a 21-yard field goal, Hearst ran three consecutive times to put the ball at the Dallas 30-yard line with a little more than seven minutes to play.
The Cowboys, drawn in by Hearst’s repeated charges, were vulnerable to quarterback Steve Young’s fake handoff and retreat to pass. Looking for J.J. Stokes, who had one catch for two yards in three quarters, Young lofted the ball toward the end zone, forcing Stokes to stretch out and make a diving catch at the one-yard line.
“I just lunged,” said Stokes, knocked dizzy and out of the game in the first quarter before returning a short time later. “I think I caught the back half of the ball.”
One play later William Floyd strolled into the end zone for the 49ers’ first lead, and after Switzer’s decision to punt, the 49ers replied with a 28-yard Gary Anderson field goal to close out the scoring, and in retrospect, finish off the Cowboys.
“Some naysayers may say we beat the Cowboys in an off-year,” 49er offensive guard Ray Brown said. “But the win says it all. We’re 8-1 and we beat the teams on our schedule. The best time to face a team is when they are down, and if they were down, then I’m glad we got them we did.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
* Minnesota: 23
* New England: 18
Vikings win fifth in a row over slumping Patriots. C6
* Green Bay: 20
* Detroit: 10
Darren Sharper’s 50-yard interception return leads the Packers. C7
* N.Y. Jets: 19
* Baltimore (OT): 16
* Buffalo: 9
* Miami: 6
* Carolina: 38
* Oakland: 14
* Atlanta: 34
* St. Louis: 31
* Cincinnati: 38
* San Diego: 31
* Tampa Bay: 31
* Indianapolis: 28
* Washington: 31
* Chicago: 8
* Jacksonville: 30
* Tennessee: 24
* Arizona: 31
* Philadelphia: 21
* Denver: 30
* Seattle: 27
* San Francisco: 17
* Dallas: 10
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