By George Demetriou
Football has not always been a four-down game. Before 1912, each team had only three downs to make a first down. Subsequent to that change, there have been several cases in which a team has been given an extra down or has been shorted. I’ll relate some of those shortly.
To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a case where a team was given six downs, but it almost happened to me. In 1994, I was the referee for a semipro game with a five-man crew. As I walked onto the field for the pregame, I realized I had left my wrist band down indicator in the car and decided it was not worth delaying the game the one or two minutes it would take to get it. I relied on the box for a quarter and a half when near disaster struck.
The play was student body right with the linesman and the entire chain crew disappearing in a mass of humanity. As I waited for the survivors to rise, a gut-wrenching revelation hit me — I didn’t know what the down was. I patiently waited for the box holder to get up and when he did, a big fat “one” was displayed. I had survived, or so I thought.
By now, linesman Scott Taylor had gotten to his feet so I confidently said “Second down” and Scott replied “Second down.” Unknown until after the game was that Scott’s wrist band had gotten knocked off in the assault and he was merely echoing what I was telling him.
I then turned to my trusty umpire, Rulon Frandsen, and repeated, with even more confidence “Second down.” Rulon wears two wrist bands: one black, one white. Very classy. He uses the black one to track the spot of the snap. I believe he uses the white one to count cheerleaders. At least, I don’t think he counts downs on it. Before replying, he looked at both hands, turned them backward and forward and gave me a very weak “OK, second down.”
One more check to go and I was there. I turned to line judge Bob Kachel, thrust out two fingers and shouted “Second down.” I was stunned by his panic-stricken look. Bob immediately came in to the ball, “No, no, fourth down.” I was incredulous, thinking to myself, “Who are you to say fourth down, when everyone else says second?”
Before I could respond, Rulon grabbed my shoulder and said “Look George, they’re in punt formation, it must be fourth down.” So it was, fourth down. The wrist band — don’t leave home without it.
I survived my gaffe, but there have been several prominent down errors that have affected the outcome of games. In 1940, Dartmouth was leading undefeated Cornell, 3-0, late in the fourth quarter. Benefiting from an extra down, Cornell won, 7-3. The mistake was discovered in the film review the following Monday and Cornell promptly forfeited.
A similar occurrence took place in the 1972 Miami-Tulane game. Miami trailed, 21-17, but was allowed a fifth down and scored with 58 seconds remaining to win the game. No forfeit this time.
The NFL is not immune from such errors. Late in the 1968 season, the Los Angeles Rams trailed the Chicago Bears, 17-16, with 58 seconds to play. The Rams drove into field goal range, but ran out of downs and lost their shot at a playoff berth. Several hours after the game, someone realized the Rams had been shortchanged their fourth down.
Then-commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended referee Norm Schachter and his entire crew for the rest of the season. “It was not a mistake in judgment, which might have been excused. It was a mechanical error that should never occur,” Rozelle said.
The most recent down error took place on Oct. 6, 1990. Colorado visited Missouri in a Big Eight (now Big 12) Conference game. With a fifth down on the final play of the game, Colorado scored a touchdown to win, 33-31. Unlike the previous cases, the benefit of the error was not clear. Colorado grounded a pass to conserve time when they were led to believe it was third down (actually fourth) by the downmarker. Colorado might have very well scored on the real fourth down, which was from the same spot as the fifth down.
Nonetheless, referee J.C. Louderback, who was in his final season after a 34-year officiating career, and his entire crew were suspended for one game. Conference commissioner Carl James, who was at the game, imposed the sanctions. “In my opinion, they blew it. … There’s no excuse for it.” Louderback’s comments: “It’s always a tough feeling when a rule, or an error in a rule, becomes a factor in the game. We are human. We erred. And we feel terrible in regards to the circumstances at the end of the game.”