On Sept. 23, 1908 Fred Merkle became the first athlete to achieve national infamy for a gaffe that ultimately cost his team a shot at a championship.
Merkle’s Boner, as they called it back then, has been joined by dozens of choke-jobs in the century following — two of which came on Sunday at the expense of the Harbaugh brothers as they coached on opposite coasts. While neither John nor Jim was responsible for the “boners” that cost their teams a shot at the Super Bowl, they’ll undoubtedly be feeling the pain from them all offseason. Er, so to speak.
For John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens, the primary choke artist was kicker Billy Cundiff, who pushed a 32-yard field goal attempt as wide left as humanly possible while kicking from the right hashmark. Perhaps Harbaugh does share some blame — after all, entrusting your team’s hopes to an ex-Cowboy is a recipe for disaster.
But Baltimore’s loss is not all Cundiff’s shankful fault. Two plays immediately preceding the field-goal attempt also did in the Ravens.
Receiver Lee Evans (entrusting your team’s hopes to an ex-Bill also a bad recipe) should have held onto the potential game-winning catch in the end zone even with the best efforts of Patriots defensive back Sterling Moore attempting to knock the ball away.
On the third down that followed, quarterback Joe Flacco had a chance to easily scramble for the first down. Instead, he threw it away with everyone covered and the Ravens had to bring Cundiff onto the field with 15 seconds remaining and a timeout to burn. Had Flacco run for a first down, the Ravens would have been able to use that timeout and take another shot at the end zone before trotting out Cundiff for a closer field goal if they failed.
For Baltimore fans, it must be the most painful loss conceivable. The Ravens were on the brink of going to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis — the very city that is only on the NFL map because it took Baltimore’s beloved Colts when Old Man Irsay snuck out of town. A victory there would have certainly been the ultimate catharsis for anyone still worked up about it.
The only catharsis for John Harbaugh may be knowing that his little brother is going through the same pain.
Jim Harbaugh has fallen painfully short of a Super Bowl once before, coming within a barely incomplete Hail Mary of bringing Indianapolis to the big game in 1996. But even that near-miss might not be as tough to swallow as what he experienced as coach of the 49ers on Sunday.
Niners punt returner Kyle Williams ensured his place in football infamy with a pair of terrible miscues that directly led to points for the Giants.
The first was a fluke play as a punt took a funny hop and barely grazed off his knee to give New York possession at the 49er 29-yard line in the fourth quarter. Still, Williams should have been nowhere near the ball and simply allowed the Giants to down it. The ensuing possession resulted in the touchdown that put the Giants ahead 17-14. Without a short field, New York’s offense was unable to to anything in the second half outside of that drive.
Williams’ second fumble was stripped away from him as he attempted to return a punt in overtime, with the Giants taking over at the 24 this time. Thanks to their having a kicker who is not Cundiff, the Giants were able to take advantage of the situation minutes later as Lawrence Tynes put a 31-yarder through the uprights for a 20-17 win. Holder Steve Weatherford — impressively grabbing a low snap while wearing his wedding ring — celebrated by running towards a TV camera and mouthing “WE’RE GOING TO THE FUCKING SUPER BOWL!” so clearly that even non-deaf people could read his lips.
You can’t help but feel for Williams, although there is poetry in his failure that links back to Fred Merkle himself.
Like Merkle, Williams was only playing in the game he’ll forever be remembered for because the starter was injured. In this case, it was Ted Ginn, Jr. who was out after injuring his knee in last week’s win over New Orleans. If you want to take it a step further — and in the world of blogging, when don’t we? — there is also the irony of the location.
Candlestick Park is the stadium built by the city of San Francisco to lure the New York Baseball Giants west — the very same Giants Merkle is said to have blown the pennant for in 1908, not to mention the namesake for the football franchise that walked away victorious Sunday due to newest entrant in the sporting world’s unfortunate Hall of Shame, Kyle Williams.