As time expired Sunday in New Orleans, with the score tied 24-24, Saints quarterback Drew Brees heaved the ball 50 yards in the air, where tight end Jimmy Graham grabbed it for an apparent game-winning Hail Mary touchdown. The fans in New Orleans celebrated for just a moment before they saw the flag on the field. As it turned out, Graham had been flagged for offensive pass interference for shoving 49ers cornerback Perrish Cox.
That was the call of the year.
The officials working the 49ers-Saints game deserve an enormous amount of credit for having the guts to make that call. It was absolutely correct, but it was a call some officials would have been reluctant to make. In fact, I couldn’t remember ever seeing offensive pass interference wipe out a successful Hail Mary, even though there’s jostling for position on almost all Hail Mary attempts. When the NFL admitted the replacement refs had screwed up the infamous “Fail Mary” during the lockout of officials in 2012, the league said the real mistake the officials had made was failing to call offensive pass interference, but the reality is officials never call that penalty. And this time they did. And it was the right call.
Graham didn’t think so afterward, saying Cox sold the call by flopping to the ground — exactly the kind of thing Graham said he hated when he was a college basketball player. Graham thought it was a bogus call.
“It was definitely not a push-off,” Graham said, via the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I’m running down the field telling myself, ‘Whatever you do, don’t push off.’ It’s interesting how guys grab me everywhere on the field and I put literally two fingers on somebody and they make that kind of call.”
Graham may be right that Cox sold it, but that doesn’t change the fact that Graham committed a penalty. The officials were right to flag him.
If the Saints had won the game in overtime, of course, we wouldn’t be talking much about that call today. But because the 49ers won, this will go down as a call that could change two teams’ seasons. For the Saints, the loss prevents them from taking a huge step forward in the NFC South. At 4-5 the Saints are still in first place in their pathetic division, but with the 3-5-1 Panthers playing on Monday night, Carolina could actually take the lead in the division with a win. If the Saints end up losing the division race by half a game to the Panthers, they’ll surely look back at that Brees-to-Graham Hail Mary and wonder what might have been.
And the 49ers absolutely needed that win to keep pace in the NFC West. The Cardinals won on Sunday to improve to 8-1, and the Seahawks won to improve to 6-3. The 49ers, at 5-4, still have an uphill battle to get to the playoffs. But they’d have almost no shot if they had lost to the Saints.
That penalty flag on Graham was Sunday’s biggest play. Here are my other thoughts:
An appreciation of Michael Vick. In helping the Jets upset the Steelers on Sunday, Vick gained 39 yards rushing. That puts him at 6,006 rushing yards in his career, making him the first quarterback in NFL history to top 6,000 rushing yards. Vick has been at best a good — never great — quarterback, but as a runner he’s a unique figure in NFL history. There’s simply never been a quarterback who could run like Vick can, and he paved the way for a generation of running quarterbacks who came after him.
The list of players with fewer career rushing yards than Vick includes some pretty good running backs, like Chuck Foreman, Joe Morris, Ronnie Brown, Reggie Bush, Natrone Means, Billy Sims and Mike Alstott. It even includes Hall of Fame running backs like Steve Van Buren, Hugh McElhenny, Lenny Moore, Ollie Matson, Gale Sayers, Marion Motley, Paul Hornung and Frank Gifford. Granted, those guys played in the old days, when offensive numbers were nothing close to what they are now, and most of them played both offense and defense. But Vick’s production running the ball really is special in NFL history. He’s the NFL’s all-time record holder in yards per attempt, with 7.05 yards per carry for his career.
Vick is past his prime now, and he’s playing out the end of his career on a lousy Jets team. But he still shows glimpses of the dynamic quarterback he once was. It was fun seeing him go to work on Sunday.
Was that the Seahawks or Tom Osborne’s Nebraska Cornhuskers? The Seahawks’ dominant win over the Giants featured the kind of ground attack you just don’t see in the pass-happy NFL anymore. Seattle ran for 350 yards and five touchdowns, the kind of numbers that we used to see in the days of the triple option dominating college football. No NFL team had managed 350 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns in the NFL since 1978. And Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson ran for 100 yards again, continuing an amazing year he’s having of making plays with his feet. Wilson now has three games this season of 100 or more yards rushing and 100 or more yards passing. How extraordinary is that? Consider this: In the entire decade of the 1980s, only one NFL player topped 100 yards rushing and 100 yards passing in the same game (Randall Cunningham in 1986). Wilson may be the closest thing to what the Falcons hoped Vick would be when they took him with the first overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft: A great quarterback who can beat you with his arm or his legs.
Odd stat of the day: Detroit’s Sam Martin became just the third player this century to have two complete passes and two punts in the same game. The Lions called two fake punts, and Martin completed passes on both of them, although only one of them picked up a first down. The only other punters in the last 15 years to do that are Johnny Hekker of the Rams, who pulled off two fakes in a tie game against the 49ers two years ago, and Chris Mohr of the Falcons, who did it to the Lions in 2004.
Your weekly reminder that Peyton Manning is incredible. Manning passed for 340 yards and five touchdowns Sunday at Oakland — and he didn’t even play in the fourth quarter. Manning now has nine five-touchdown games in his career, the most of any quarterback in NFL history. It’s going to be tough to find any record Manning doesn’t own by the time he’s done.
A big game for Dion Jordan. Jordan has looked like a disappointment since the Dolphins traded up to take him with the third overall pick in last year’s NFL draft. He managed just two sacks as a rookie, and this year his season started with a suspension for a failed drug test. But on Sunday he played very well against the Lions. Jordan picked up a blocked field goal and raced 58 yards to set up Miami’s only touchdown, and he also looked very good in pass coverage, at one point knocking a ball out of Calvin Johnson’s hands in the end zone. Jordan has undeniable talent, and on Sunday he looked like he was starting to put that talent together.
Dez Bryant is amazing. Bryant looked like a man among boys when running through the Jaguars’ secondary on Sunday in London, catching six passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns. With Calvin Johnson having missed half this season with a sprained ankle, Bryant has emerged as the most imposing threat in the NFL at the wide receiver position.
Lovie Smith is this year’s most disappointing coach. I didn’t think the Buccaneers were going to be good this season, but I did think the arrival of Smith would at least make them resemble a competent football team. Instead, Smith has done something I didn’t think was possible: He took over for Greg Schiano and did even worse. This Tampa Bay team, which lost 27-17 to Atlanta on Sunday, is absolutely awful.
Speaking of Schiano . . . I thought when Schiano was fired last year we were done seeing defensive players trying to blow up the victory formation. Apparently not.
Odell Beckham Jr. is a stud. Beckham, the Giants’ first-round draft pick, got his rookie season off to a slow start because of hamstring injuries. But now that he’s healthy, he’s an outstanding player. He burned Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman for a 44-yard catch on Sunday, and he finished the game with seven catches for 108 yards. He may be the best rookie in the NFL.
Will we ever be able to figure the NFL out? So many things don’t make any sense. The Browns are all alone in first place in the AFC North. Next week’s Lions-Cardinals game will be for the best record in the NFC. Nothing in the NFL is predictable, especially on a day when an offensive pass interference call wipes out a Hail Mary.