20 years and still 1 Fumble
By ERNEST HOOPER
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 20, 1998
AMPA -- Across America, kids in parks and on playgrounds dream of dramatic, game-winning heroics: the ninth-inning home run, the touchdown catch in the back of the end zone, the jumper at the sound of the buzzer.
Bucs secondary coach Herman Edwards was no different growing up at Fort Ord Air Force Base in Seaside, Calif. But his fertile imagination never concocted what would become reality.
"You dream of it, but you never imagine it happening like that," Edwards mused.
Nov. 19, 1978, Edwards crafted the play that defined his career. With the help of the bumbling New York Giants, he raced into NFL immortality with a fumble that never should have occurred.
Edwards was a cornerback with the Philadelphia Eagles, a franchise that finished above .500 only once since 1962. Losing was a learned trade, and on this day the Eagles had displayed their craft well.
With 1:23 remaining and New York leading by five, the Giants intercepted a Ron Jaworski pass at their 21-yard line. The Eagles, 6-5 at the time, appeared to be headed toward another defeat, while the Giants (5-6) were looking to even their record and renew the promise of their 5-3 start.
All the Giants needed to do was run out the clock.
On the first play, New York ran fullback Larry Csonka up the middle for a surprising 11-yard gain. Quarterback Joe Pisarcik took a knee on the next play, but Philadelphia linebacker Frank LeMaster bowled over center Jim Clack.
"They went to kneel on it and one of the linebackers hit the center, knocked the center into the quarterback and a fight kind of started," Edwards said. "They got a little nervous about that because they figured maybe they'll get the quarterback hurt. So they called another run."
Giants coach John McVay, now in the 49ers front office, said protecting Pisarcik was a concern.
"He was taking some pretty ugly hits," said McVay, son of Outback Bowl director Jim McVay. "So we called a play we put in on the first day of training camp."
When the play came in, several players told Pisarcik not to call it. They wanted him to take a knee again, but Pisarcik remembered a week earlier when he changed a play and offensive coordinator Bob Gibson threatened to replace him. "As long as they remember me, that's all I'm concerned about," Pisarcik told the New York Post last week. "Overall, it was just a bad situation. One of those deals that whatever could go wrong, did."
When the Giants broke the huddle and lined up, Edwards actually was talking to New York running back Doug Kotar, who said his team was just going to flop on the ball. Edwards' play of infamy was seconds away.
"Clack gets under the center and the clock is running down," Edwards said. "Clack is thinking, "I've got to hurry up and hike this ball before they call a delay of game.' He hikes the ball and Joe's not ready. So as soon as the ball is snapped, it's being bobbled.
"(Pisarcik) tries to give it to Csonka, but now the timing is all messed up -- and I'm just kind of watching this and I keep edging forward -- and finally when I see it hit his hip and it's going to the ground, I just take off."
Pisarcik said, "At that point ... I'm thinking, "I must be dreaming.' "
Edwards used a swim move to get by Kotar.
"Kotar is hollering, "What are you doing?' Sure enough, I get it on a clean bounce and there's nobody back there."
The 26-yard return gave the Eagles a 19-17 victory. "When I look back at it, it was almost like it was slow motion. When I picked it up, I took off running. When I ran into the end zone, Giants Stadium is quiet, everybody is looking around and I'm kind of looking around saying, "What happened?' "
Philadelphia coach Dick Vermeil said there was a reason Edwards was in position.
"The whole key to the play was that Marion Campbell, our defensive coordinator, had called an 11-man blitz," Vermeil said Thursday. "We hadn't given up. That's why our right cornerback was in the backfield."
Vermeil didn't even see the genesis of the play. He was back among the players and had started to walk to the Philadelphia locker room with his back to the action. When the Eagles started racing by him and celebrating, he shouted, "What are you doing?"
The next day, Gibson was fired. Later that week, Vermeil had his team practicing the Herman Edwards formation -- a running back well behind the quarterback in clock-killing situations.
Now the formation is standard, but Edwards proudly notes the play did more than make teams wary in the closing seconds. The Eagles went on to the playoffs thanks in part to the confidence fueled by the improbable win.
"In our organization ... it was probably a play that kind of catapulted us a little bit because we were a team, at that time, that was struggling to try to win games," Edwards said. "We were kind of close in some games and had lost some games toward the end.
"All of sudden, we make this play, I'm able to help the team make a play -- really just a tragic deal -- but I make it and we win the game. We go back, win another game and eventually get in the playoffs."
Two years later, the reversal of fortune was complete when the Eagles played in the Super Bowl.
The effect on the Giants was quite different. New York's shot at its first playoff berth in 15 years evaporated as it finished 6-10. McVay was fired at season's end. Could his coaching career have turned out differently if the play had never happened?
"I don't know, but I have about one nightmare a week about it," McVay said. "You never know what might have happened the next week, but we had the team going pretty good -- at least a winning season. But that's ancient history."
History keeps repeating itself. In 1996, Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne fumbled with 46 seconds remaining on the Badgers 41, and Northwestern recovered and scored a touchdown to win 34-30. Saturday, Arkansas quarterback Cliff Stoerner fumbled to give Tennessee the chance to pull out a 29-24 victory.
With each occurrence, Edwards' name invariably comes up.
"It's a funny deal," Edwards said. "I think players always want to be remembered for something, and I'm grateful for that.
"A player or a coach tells you it ain't over, play until the end, finish, finish. When you're a player you hear that, but it really sinks in with me. I mean, more than anyone can ever imagine."