Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Nicknames of Sports Plays

Why can't we as a culture, who are so quick to label things, come up with creative names for sports plays? I bring this up because each year, sporting fanatics witness some heroic feats on the field of play. Yet we can't come to a consensus on a name that will allow these moments to be simply recalled by a short phrase. There were some simple yet lasting nicknames of sporting events (especially in the 1980s) that make you hearken back to the event the instant you say their names:

1. The Miracle on Ice - Al Michaels threw out the line "Do you believe in miracles? YES!!" as the most monumental event in sports history concluded - the fresh-faced amateur U.S. college hockey team defeated the professional Soviet team in the 1980 Winter Olympics. The back and forth contest had many pulse-pounding moments, including the goal that Mark Johnson scored just before the end of the first period on a breakway. This led to the benching of world class goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, for the remainder of the game. But, the coup de grace was a goal by captain Mike Eruzione with exactly ten minutes left to give Team USA a 4-3 lead that stood up. The Soviets played panicked hockey for the remainder of the game, not knowing how to mount a comeback when facing a deficit. American goaltender Jim Craig made 36 saves to preserve the unbelievable victory.

2. The Catch - Joe Montana's backpedaling pass over Ed "Too Tall" Jones to Dwight Clark running across the back of the endzone put an end to the Dallas Cowboys' reign in the NFC and marked the emergence of the 49ers dynasty. Many thought that Montana was trying to throw the ball away and save a 4th down opportunity. But, Clark snagged the ball with his fingertips at the top of his jump to enter NFL lore. The touchdown pass gave the 49ers a 28-27 lead in the NFC Championship game with 51 seconds remaining, one they would not relinquish. That year, the 49ers went on to win the first of four Super Bowls with Joe Montana at the helm. I tried to track down where the roots of the phrase "The Catch" began, but I found nothing more definitive than sports columnists and fans calling it by that name.

3. The Drive - John Elway broke the hearts of Cleveland Browns' fans with a 98-yard drive at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the 1986 AFC Championship Game. With 5:32 remaining, the Denver Broncos took over on their own 2-yard line. They methodically moved down the field 98 yards over the next five minutes to score the game-tying touchdown. Cleveland forced three third downs on the drive, but each time Denver converted, including a 20-yard completion on 3rd and 18. With 32 seconds, Elway hit Mark Jackson on a low slant pass in the endzone. Rich Karlis kicked the game-winning field goal in overtime to advance to the Super Bowl.

4. The Fumble - Earnest Byner had the opportunity to return the favor against the Broncos in the 1987 AFC Championship game. Byner looked as though he would score a game-tying touchdown at Mile High Stadium with a mere 72 seconds remaining in the game to possibly force overtime. He took the handoff from Bernie Kosar at the 8-yard line, but was stripped by Jeremiah Castille at the 2. The Broncos held on, and once again advanced to the Super Bowl. Castille later said that he had to go for the ball because Byner had been running over their defense for the entire game. The Browns still haven't reached the Super Bowl in the modern era.

5. The Shot - In the deciding game of the 1989 first round series between the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Cavs led 100-99 with three seconds remaining thanks to a Craig Ehlo driving score. Everyone knew that Jordan would be the guy to get the ball, so he was double-teamed by Larry Nance and Craig Ehlo. Jordan easily broke free from Nance, but Ehlo stuck with Jordan closely. Brad Sellers inbounded the ball to Jordan, who dribbled inside the top of the key near the foul line and buried a tough off-balance jumper over Ehlo at the buzzer. The devastation was palpable from Ehlo (who slunk to the floor) as well as the home Cavalier crowd at Richfield Coliseum. Meanwhile Jordan jumped, pumped his arms, and celebrated euphorically. Bulls coach Doug Collins took a page from Jim Valvano as he ran around the court in exuberant celebration. Yet another heartbreak for Cleveland fans.

6. No Goal - In Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals, the Dallas Stars led 3 games to 2 over the Buffalo Sabres. The future Hall of Fame goaltenders (Ed Belfour of the Stars and Dominik Hasek of the Sabres) were turning aside all scoring chances. They had played nearly the equivalent of two full games when Brett Hull found a loose puck in front of the net, shot, was turned aside by a sprawling Hasek before batting in the rebound over the Sabres goalie. Hull got his skate blade on the puck outside of the crease before taking the initial shot. On the rebound attempt, his skate is clearly in the crease when scoring the Cup-winning goal. The controversy surrounding this goal was caused by the NHL rule stating that a player's skate could not be in the crease if the puck was not. Earlier in the season, the NHL attempted to clarify the ruling by allowing goals when a scorer "establishes possession of the puck prior to entering the crease." This is why NHL officials ruled that this goal should be allowed, and the Stanley Cup was awarded to the Dallas Stars. Buffalo's ardent supporters stated that similar instances were not ruled goals throughout the year, hence the "No Goal" moniker.

7. The Music City Miracle - Although it was only a 1999 Wild Card playoff game, this play certainly was miraculous. The Buffalo Bills looked as if they were going to advance to the divisional round when Steve Christie kicked a 41-yard field goal with 16 seconds left to take a 16-15 lead over the Tennessee Titans. As the kickoff went to Lorenzo Neal, the scripted play unfolded to the delight of the home crowd. Neal handed off to tight end, Frank Wycheck, who "faked" running right before launching a 20-yard sideways pass to his left (barely a lateral) to Kevin Dyson, who sprinted 75 yards up the sideline with a perfectly formed wall to allow him to return the kickoff all the way for the game-winning touchdown with three seconds on the clock. The phrase "Music City Miracle" took a day or two to take hold. The Titans play-by-play radio announcer, Mike Keith repeatedly called the play a miracle. The "Music City" part was added within the next day or two...the name stuck.

8. The Flip Play - In the 2001 ALDS, the New York Yankees were facing the underdog Oakland Athletics, who led 2 games to 0. In Game 3, A's outfielder Terrence Long doubled into the right field corner with Jeremy Giambi on first base. Yankees outfielder Shane Spencer retrieved the ball and attempted to throw towards home plate, but he was well off-target for both cut-off man Tino Martinez and catcher Jorge Posada. Derek Jeter saw this, sprinted from his shortstop position, and located the ball that was slowly coming down the first base line. In one fluid motion, Jeter picked up the ball and flipped it to Posada, who was able to apply the tag to Giambi's leg as he lumbered towards home without sliding. The Yankees recorded the out, won the game, and came back to win the series.

That was just a handful of plays to give you a flavor of the indellible images that are conjured in your mind when thinking of memorable sporting events. I'm sure that you can think of many others. Having said all of that, I think we need to come together when something historic unfolds so that we can quickly recall the event by a simple name. Here are a few events that should have nicknames, but too much time has passed for that to occur. I have some suggestions, though...see what you think. Maybe we can be a little more creative going forward.

1. Dave Roberts' steal off Mariano Rivera in the 2004 ALCS that started the most improbable comeback in sports history. The Boston Red Sox were down 3 games to 0 in the 2004 ALCS and facing elimination against the best closer of all-time, Mariano Rivera down 4-3 in the ninth inning. Game over, series over, right? Well...after Kevin Millar walked, Dave Roberts was sent in to pinch run by manager, Terry Francona. Rivera knew why Roberts was there, so he threw over to first base three times, the last of which he was nearly picked off. With Rivera's next delivery to home, Roberts bolted for second base and barely beat Jorge Posada's throw on a "bang bang" play. This was the first steal ever off Rivera in postseason play. The pessimistic Fenway crowd had a gleam of hope. Bill Mueller singled in Roberts, the speedster. The Sox went on to win the game and astonishingly, the series. The Red Sox followed up the unprecedented comeback against the Yankees with a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, thus ending the fabled "Curse of the Bambino." I would recommend that this stolen base be named The Curse Breaker for it being the sparkplug that turned the tide for the 2004 team and changed Red Sox history forever.

2. David Tyree's catch against his helmet in the Super Bowl XLII. In the battle of David and Goliath, the New England Patriots were 18-0 and heavily favored against the New York Giants. The Giants held the lead until New England scored with 2:42 to go, taking a 14-10 lead. New York had moved the ball near midfield with a 3rd down and 5 looming with 75 seconds left. The offensive line did their best turnstiles impersonation, allowing three Pats defensive linemen in on Eli Manning. Manning had his jersey grabbed by Richard Seymour, but he squirted free, faded backwards, and launched an ill-advised pass nearly 40 yards downfield. Tyree fell to the ground as he was catching the ball with (notoriously dirty) defender, Rodney Harrison swiping at the ball and Tyree's hands. The only position Tyree could hold the ball without letting it hit the turf was against his helmet with his extended hands. The electricity in the stadium was intense. A few plays later, Manning found Plaxico Burress in the front corner of the endzone and the perfect season for the Pats vanished. I've heard this play referred to as The Helmet Catch...I don't know why this hasn't been widely accepted as the term for this event. What else could you call it? The Helmet Catch would immediately put Tyree's image front and center.

3. Santonio Holmes' touchdown reception to give the Steelers their sixth Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl XLIII. The Arizona Cardinals overcame a 20-7 deficit to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 4th quarter with two Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald TD passes and one safety due to a holding call on Steelers center, Justin Hartwig, in the endzone. The Steelers offense faced a 23-20 deficit with 2:37 to go. The drive started with an offensive holding penalty. But, the Pittsburgh passing game awoke, gashing the Cardinals secondary with passes to Holmes and Nate Washington, moving the Steelers down to the 6-yard line. On first down, Ben Roethlisberger floated a pass to the left corner of the endzone that Holmes probably should have caught, as it went through his hands. It appeared that he was focused on getting his feet in bounds, as opposed to first catching the ball. On second down, Roethlisberger arced a throw over three Arizona defenders to the right corner of the endzone. Holmes tapped his toes as he made a much more difficult outstretched reception than the previous attempt to give Pittsburgh the lead. The booth review confirmed the catch. Jeff Reed kicked the extra point to give Pittsburgh a 27-23 lead. This catch was regionally called "Ben to 10," referencing Holmes' jersey number (#10). I think that's a bit too obscure. I know that there have been many catches where a receiver taps his toes inbounds, but never one that occurred on such a big stage. So, I would propose The Toe Tap for this amazing reception. I also considered Tone Taps Toes ('Tone is Santonio's nickname), but I don't think it's as direct and to the point despite the Tic Tac Toe-like alliteration.

4. Tracy Porter's interception of Peyton Manning to deter Indy's comeback attempt versus New Orleans in Super Bowl XLIV. Indianapolis was the favorite going into the game, more so because of everyone's love affair with Peyton Manning. The Colts and Saints played a very evenly-matched game. Sean Payton, the Saints coach, was audacious enough to call for an onside kick to open the second half. The Saints recovered, scored to take a 13-10 lead, and put Indy on their heels momentarily. Manning answered with a scoring drive of his own to go up 17-13. New Orleans notched another field goal and touchdown (with two-point conversion) to retake the lead 24-17 with nearly six minutes to go. Everyone expected the Colts to come down and score to set up a dazzling finish. Well, the Colts certainly moved the ball. On a third down play in Saints territory, Manning threw toward Reggie Wayne on a short in route, but Tracy Porter jumped the pattern, picked the pass cleanly, and ran it back all the way for a touchdown that left most people dumbfounded. Were the mighty Colts really going to lose? Yes, they were. The Saints scored a 31-17 upset victory over the Colts and the city of New Orleans went bananas. The only turnover in the game was the undoing of Indianapolis. I am recommending that this turning point be called Porter's Pick of Peyton. Yes, it's a little corny (a la Peter Piper), but it's certainly memorable.

5. The Canada / USA Gold Medal hockey game in 2010. Team USA entered the 2010 Olympics Ice Hockey tournament as a major underdog to powerhouses Canada, Russia, Finland, and Sweden. With a plodding, role-playing roster bereft of superstars, the Americans entered the gold medal game with a 5-0 record including a shocking victory over Team Canada. Canada staggered through some early round games to make the medal round, but began hitting their stride at the right time. The atmosphere was fanatical. The partisan Vancouver crowd was nervous that a team of lesser talent could possibly beat the Canadians at "their game" on their ice. The contest was probably the best played hockey match I've seen. It looked as though USA goaltender Ryan Miller's stellar performance in the Olympics was going to be wasted as Team USA was losing 2-1 with less than a minute to play in regulation. The American coach, Ron Wilson, pulled the goalie in favor of an extra attacker. Zach Parise managed to sneak a puck past Roberto Luongo with 24.4 seconds remaining in regulation. The Canadian crowd was aghast. The contest was going to overtime where the next goal would win. Both teams had chances, but hockey overtime games end abruptly. Canadian forward Jarome Iginla was being defended along the boards when American defenseman Brian Rafalski snoozed a bit, letting Sidney Crosby move closer to the goal line.  Iginla passed to a suddenly open Crosby. His shot from well below the left circle passed between Miller's legs. All of Canada exhaled a sigh of relief and joy, all of America cursed at that very moment. The phenomenal game ended with the prodigy scoring one of the biggest goals in Canadian history to bring home the gold medal. I'd suggest The GOLDen Goal. A "golden goal" is a goal in hockey, soccer, and other sports that immediately ends play when a tie is broken in extra time.

6. Patrick Kane's OT goal against the Flyers to give the Chicago Blackhawks the 2010 Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks were leading three games to two, and up 3-2 in the 3rd period at Philadelphia. That's when Philly decided to start throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at them. The Flyers utterly dominated play, but were not breaking through until scrappy forward Scott Hartnell poked a loose puck in front of the net past Chicago netminder, Antti Niemi, with under four minutes left in regulation. It was bedlam inside the Wells Fargo Center. Many expected that the momentum the Flyers carried all period would be enough to force a Game 7. But, Patrick Kane had other ideas. Just over four minutes into the first overtime period, Kane fired a sharply angled shot from near the goal line that scooted underneath Michael Leighton for the Cup-clincher. Initially, many players continued playing as if no goal was scored because the puck quickly escaped from the net. The goal lamp was not lit. Kane knew right away, as did some of his teammates. The American announcers certainly didn't realize that the NHL season had just ended. Leighton had expected a centering pass to one of the Hawks' players and the puck simply went under him. This 4-3 overtime victory gave Chicago its first Stanley Cup since 1961. I think the play should be called Windy City Cup Winner.

7. The Eagles' amazing comeback victory over the Giants last weekend in a regular season matchup between archrivals. We saw the New York Giants blow a 21-point fourth quarter lead to the Philadelphia Eagles. New York had a series of breakdowns that allowed Philadelphia to come back. #1 - Allowing Brent Celek to start the rally with a catch and run for a 67-yard TD is inexcusable. He's a tight end, your secondary is faster than him, and he's not that adept at breaking tackles. This big play left a considerable amount of time on the clock. #2 - The special teams unit was ill-prepared for an onside kick when leading by 14 points with five minutes left is a fireable offense in my opinion. #3 - The punt that didn't go out of bounds with poor lane assignments on the final play of the game allowing DeSean Jackson to go unscathed into the endzone was just the icing on the cake. So, I wouldn't call it a miracle...a collapse of epic proportions is more appropriate, especially if the Giants do not qualify for the playoffs. The best label that stuck was the Miracle at the Meadowlands II. Was it miraculous? Yes, but if the Giants had done one or two things right down the stretch, the comeback would never have happened. So, I think that a more appropriate name for this event would be the Meadowlands Meltdown

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