Officials’ mistake proved costly to Los Angeles Rams in 1968

Mistakes aren’t exclusive to replacement officials. They’re made every week during every NFL season, even by the full-time pros.

Occasionally, errors are made by even the best of the best — and once in a while it happens in a very important game.

It happened at the Coliseum in 1968 with a berth in the playoffs on the line. The Rams were playing the Chicago Bears, needing a win to set up a final-game-of-the-regular-season showdown against the Baltimore Colts for the Coastal Division championship. In those days, only the four division winners advanced to the postseason.

The Rams trailed by a point as they took over at their 36-yard line with 29 seconds left in regulation. Roman Gabriel quickly fired a pass to Jack Snow for a 32-yard gain and a first down, but the Rams needed to move closer to be within kicker Bruce Gossett’s field-goal range.

Gabriel tried to connect with Snow again, but his pass fell incomplete and, worse, lineman Charlie Cowan was called for holding — a loss of 21 yards because the infraction took place six yards behind the line of scrimmage.

The Rams should have had a first down at their 47, but the yard marker read second down, even though the penalty wiped out the previous play. Gabriel’s next three passes also fell incomplete, and the game officials awarded possession to Chicago with five seconds still on the clock.

The Rams had been given three downs after the penalty instead of four.

The next day, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle took unprecedented action, suspending the entire officiating crew for the rest of the season — including lucrative playoff assignments.

Although he noted in a statement that the crew was “among the most competent in pro football,” Rozelle ruled that each of its six members were “equally responsible for keeping track of the downs.”

The referee was Norm Schacter, principal of Los Angeles High. He was the league’s highest-paid referee and had worked in three of the previous six NFL title games, and also the first Super Bowl.

“It’s presumed that the Rams would not have employed the same strategy if the down situation had been correct,” the late Mal Florence reported in The Times. “It’s possible that Gabriel, provided with a first down on his own 47, might have thrown successive short ‘out’ passes in order to get back within field-goal range again.”

Of course, the officials weren’t the only ones who lost track. Rams coaches, focused on time slipping away, didn’t notice they had lost a down.

So it’s entirely possible that Gabriel would have been left to heave a “Hail Mary” pass toward the end zone as time expired.

And what are the chances of that kind of play ever being successful?