Instant Replay Game: 25 years later
Say what you will about Jim Quirk's penalty call on Don Majkowski for throwing the famous Instant Replay pass from beyond the line of scrimmage.
Maybe he was right, maybe he was wrong. But judging by the YouTube clip of the broadcast from that Packers-Bears classic from 1989, there's no way to tell, and no justification for replay official Bill Parkinson to overturn the call and in effect give the Packers the 14-13 win.
Quirk, in fact, remembers Art McNally, the NFL's director of officials at the time, telling him the week after the game and several times thereafter that replay official Bill Parkinson lacked the required "indisputable visual evidence" to overturn the call.
"The only person that had a reasonable idea was me," Quirk said in a phone interview this week from his home in New Jersey, "because I was standing on the 14-yard line on the Chicago sideline looking right down the line of scrimmage."
Twenty-five years later to the week, with the Packers and Bears set to play Sunday night at Lambeau Field, it's hard to fully convey how uplifting it was for a floundering Packers organization to defeat its greatest rival in such dramatic circumstances. For anyone who has known only Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers as the Packers' quarterbacks, and season-ticket waiting lists in the tens of thousands, it wasn't always like this.
In the 21 seasons from 1968 through 1988, the Packers were among the dregs of the NFL. They qualified for the playoffs only twice and finished above .500 three times. They also were at perhaps their lowest point in their rivalry with the Bears that dates to 1921. Going into that Nov. 5, 1989, matchup at Lambeau, the Packers had lost to the Bears eight straight games.
So when Parkinson overturned the penalty, bedlam ruled at Lambeau. The Packers finally had beaten their arch enemy and were well on their way to what at that time passed for a magical season — they finished 10-6, though they failed to make the playoffs.
"I'm overwhelmed with emotion," Packers linebacker Brian Noble was quoted in the Press-Gazette after the game. "Guys were crying. Guys were screaming. I was crying and screaming. I've been here a long time now. We have been through some games with these guys that have come down to the wire like this one did. Somehow we always found ourselves on the short end of the stick. I guarantee you right now there's a party in Green Bay tonight."
The Bears comprehended the moment as well.
"We knew (the significance of the outcome) more than the people in the stands," said Tom Thayer, a Bears guard at the time and current radio analyst for Bears games, in an interview this week. "We were the guys living it as much as they were dying it. We were 100 percent aware of everything. I don't think they appreciated it any more than we didn't."
So let's review how the crucial moments played out that day.
In the fourth quarter, the Packers trailed 13-7, and twice Majkowski had turned over the ball in the red zone — one on a fumble and the other on an interception by linebacker Ron Rivera with 7 minutes to play.
"That's where it really got nerve-wracking," Majkowski said this week. "I remember coming off after the interception and (coach) Lindy (Infante) grabbed me by the face mask and said, 'Keep your head up because you're still going to be the hero of this game.' "
Majkowski got the ball back at his 27 with 4:44 left and moved to the Bears' 7 with 1:26 to play. On first down he fumbled while getting sacked, but center Blair Bush recovered. After two incompletions the game came down to one play, fourth-and-goal from the 14, with 41 seconds to play.
The Bears had blitzed heavily in the fourth quarter, so during their discussion on the sideline, Infante and Majkowski guessed the Bears again would send an extra rusher or two. That meant the Packers needed a man-to-man beater, so Infante made the call: two out, short 470, Z slant, X choose.
Two out was the formation — two receivers to the left, two to the right and a running back in the backfield. Short 470 is the protection — the back (Herman Fontenot) stays in as the sixth blocker if there's a blitz.
Z slant is the outside receiver's route on the right side (Perry Kemp), which triggers an automatic complementary seam route by the slot receiver (Aubrey Matthews) lined up inside him. And X choose is the slant route for the receiver wide left (Sterling Sharpe), with the receiver lined up inside him (Jeff Query) running a complementary corner route.
The plan against a blitz was to hit Query or Sharpe on a hot read and hope either could break the tackle against one-on-one coverage and run for the touchdown. Bears middle linebacker Mike Singletary showed blitz but backed off at the snap. The Bears rushed only four and played a seven-man, Cover 2 zone, not man-to-man.
"I immediately aborted the play," Majkowski said, "and said I've got to buy some time and let my receivers do their thing, and let the scramble drill, which we practiced a lot, take effect."
Majkowski scrambled to his right, with left end Trace Armstrong chasing. Just outside the numbers Majkowski cocked his arm to throw to either Matthews or Kemp in the right side of the end zone, but Singletary and safety Dave Duerson converged in coverage. That opened a passing lane to Sharpe, who had run across the field with Majkowski's scramble. Majkowski reloaded and threw a dart across his body into Sharpe's chest for the touchdown.
Bedlam ruled at Lambeau and on the Packers' sideline. But Quirk, set up on the line of scrimmage about 50 yards across the field on the Bears' sideline, saw Majkowski's release as over the line. As the Bears celebrated, Parkinson buzzed down to referee Tom Dooley to signal he was reviewing the play on the two VCR-equipped TV monitors in the replay booth atop Lambeau.
The NFL had added instant replay in 1986 — it would rescind it after the '91 season, then bring it back in '99 under the current coach challenge system. According to a story in the next day's Press-Gazette that quoted Dooley, and confirmed by an NFL spokesman this week, the rule at the time depended solely on the ball at the point of release and not on the quarterback's body. If the ball was behind the line of scrimmage on release, the pass was legal, no matter where the quarterback's feet were. (Today, the rule is that both body and ball have to be behind the line).
The TV replays shown at the time, which are on YouTube and were the replays available to Parkinson, clearly show that Majkowski's front foot last touched the field at the 15, a yard behind the line of scrimmage. The color analyst for the game, Dan Fouts, erroneously thought the feet were what mattered, and after watching the replay several times said the penalty should be overturned.
But Majkowski jumped forward and to the side as he released the pass while going out of bounds, and there's no way to see whether the ball came out before Majkowski's hand crossed the 14. The sideline camera was at about the 20, and this was long before HD television. So the angle and fuzzy picture make it impossible to tell where Majkowski's hand was when the ball came out.
Judging by the video clip, it's more than plausible that Quirk was right, and regardless, it's hard to see how Parkinson could argue that the evidence was conclusive. But after an extraordinarily long, dramatic wait of four-plus minutes, with players and officials milling about the field, Parkinson overturned the call.
"To be simple, he didn't have the right angle," Quirk said. "Nowadays they have the golf cart with the camera on it in most stadiums that shoots right down the line of scrimmage. If we'd had that then, we'd have been able to make a more definitive argument."
Bedlam again. Chris Jacke's extra point gave the Packers a 14-13 lead with 32 seconds left, which held up.
"I told one of the coaches standing there, 'It's not very often you get to celebrate a victory twice,' " Infante said in a telephone interview this week from his home in Florida.
The broadcast cut to Bears coach Mike Ditka several times, and he appears to have stayed composed after the overturn. The Press-Gazette ran a photo of Ditka and Infante shaking hands after the game, and there were no indications in the picture or game reports that Ditka went off.
But Thayer said the coach didn't handle the defeat well. And owner Mike McCaskey the next season ordered the game marked with an asterisk labeled "instant replay game" in the Bears' press guide, which lasted for about 10 years.
"It was doubly not fun going into a locker room after a Packer loss," Thayer said. "In my era we didn't lose very much to Green Bay. The whole idea of losing, losing in that fashion, Ditka's emotions are running hot, the press fueling the fire with their questions. And knowing the next day (Ditka) is going to run the projector is the scariest part of it all."
Today, the NFL generally is good at communicating to the public about controversial calls, but in '89 McNally refused to comment, according to multiple newspaper reports at the time.
"To this day I never got a clear answer to whether we got the right call," Infante said.
The game marked the turning point in both teams' seasons. Both were 5-4 after the game. The Packers went on to finish 10-6, though they missed the playoffs because they lost a tiebreaker with the Minnesota Vikings. The Bears won only once more the rest of the season.
"I know we never went to the playoffs, didn't win a Super Bowl," Majkowski said. "But it really brought back the excitement during that time period that was much needed. It was a pretty cool thing, and that game was a big part of it."
The final word goes to Singletary, the Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker. He's probably in the minority among the Bears — perhaps even a minority of one — but he considers the game's outcome as just. He didn't change his mind when told that the game video shows there wasn't close to enough evidence to overturn the call.
"In all honesty, they deserved to win the game," Singletary said this week. "The fact that the call was overturned in the end I thought it was fitting."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.