Two games ended last week while bettors had hands outstretched over their heads in apparent victory only to moments later find out intelligence on the field cost them a payout at the window. Before we get into the point spread wins by the Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans, let me tell you where I think it all started.
September 16, 1974.
The Oakland Raiders opened their 1974 season on Monday Night Football at Rich Stadium in Buffalo against Joe Ferguson and his Buffalo Bills. The night was the first Monday night telecast where Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford didn’t have the partnership with Don Meredith, who had left the booth to pursue a broadcasting and acting career with NBC.
That preseason, Roone Arledge of ABC had hired Fred Williamson to replace Meredith. But, his preseason reviews were horrible and on the eve of the regular season opener they replaced him with Alex Karras. The one-time Detroit Lions lineman had been suspended by the league a few years earlier for betting on football and is known for his comment in his first game back. It was the coin toss, and the ref asked Karras to call it in the air, and Karras replied, “I’m not allowed to gamble sir.”
It was this sense of humor that earned Karras the Monday Night Football primetime spot, it was also a way for Al Davis, owner of the Raiders, to stick one to his nemesis, Pete Rozelle, who had suspended Karras. Cosell and Davis were best of friends, and Cosell had clout with Arledge.
Okay, the new broadcasting trio in the booth called Ferguson’s TD toss to Bobby Moore, who would later change his name to Ahmad Rashad, with 1:56 left on the game clock. The TD and ensuing extra point gave the Bills a one point lead, 14-13.
The Raiders offense went nowhere on three plays and Raiders Head Coach John Madden chose to punt with just over a minute left in the game but with three timeouts. The decision proved right when Bills runningback Jim Braxton fumbled with 1:15 to go in the game and the ball was scooped up by Raiders defensive end Art Thoms with clear sailing for a 29-yard jaunt to the endzone.
As he traveled down the sideline, I stood up in the press box and rooted for Thoms, not to score, but rather to stop at the one. My thinking was that if he did, the Raiders could use the rest of the clock and bring on George Blanda to kick the winning field goal as time ran out.
Thoms didn’t heed my advice. Instead he scored the touchdown, which gave the Raiders a 20-14 lead that was erased less than a minute later when Moore caught his second touchdown pass in the final two minutes to give the Bills the opening night win, 21-20.
You know that thing that most people have to avoid saying something that you are almost certain is going to piss the person you are with off, even though you think it is important? Yeah, I don’t have that control.
A little more than an hour after the game I’m sitting across from John Madden on the flight back to Oakland. The coach had just lost a heartbreaker, and you know what I said to him? “I was thinking that if Thoms would have stopped at the one-yard line we could have won the game on a last second field goal.”
Madden looked at me like I had just strangled his puppy.
“You can’t tell a player not to score, easy to say after the game,” he snapped back at me incredulously.
I could have stopped there, but I didn’t.
“Actually,” I replied like any snot nose 24-year-old might, “I was actually saying it after he picked up the ball and before he crossed the goal line.”
“Easy to do in the comfort of an air-conditioned press box,” Madden said without even looking at me.
“But we could have won if he had,” was probably a statement too far, but fortunately, just as I said it, the United Airlines charter began it’s assent and Madden’s fears took over as he silently gripped the arm rests with white knuckle terror and closed his eyes.
Fast forward to last Sunday, when two teams took my advice, and won … while costing their backers their bets.
After Kyler Murray hit the Hail Mary to Deandre Hopkins to stake the Cardinals to a two point advantage with only one second left on the clock, bettors who had the Cardinals laying 2½ points had their hands outstretched over their heads in apparent victory. They may have been surprised to see the Cardinals line-up as if they were going for a two point conversion, and then immediately crushed when they realized what the Cardinals were doing was not taking a chance on an extra point being returned by Buffalo for two points and forcing overtime. Murray knelt down with the snap, and the Arizona backers slumped in defeat.
You think that was tough on them?
Consider the bettors on the same day that had the Cleveland Browns laying 4½ points against the Houston Texans. Cleveland led in the game 10-7 with 1:07 left on the clock and the Browns had a third down running play called from the 40-yard line to Nick Chubb. The third-year Cleveland runner broke free down the left sideline and as Cleveland bettors rose in unison to celebrate their win, Chubb turned a 60-yard touchdown run into a 59-yard scamper, purposefully stepping out of bounds at the one. Then the Browns knelt down on first down, and walked off with a three point victory and a loss for their point spread backers.
Madden was wrong. When you teach a team how to win, they don’t always have to score.