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Steelers Play of the game: Randle El's fumble

Muffed punt kicks off downward spiral

Monday, November 11, 2002

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

It seemed at the time like a harmless fumble, if such a thing is possible.

Antwaan Randle El tries unsuccessfully to get his fumbled ball back from Falcons linebacker Mark Simoneau in the fourth quarter. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Even the way Bill Cowher challenged the play -- mockingly tossing the red flag on the field and following through as if he were playing catch in the back yard -- seemed to suggest he didn’t think it was a big deal, either.

Up by 17 points with 10:18 remaining, who could blame him?

“Seventeen-point lead and they’re punting the ball to us with eight minutes to go,” Cowher said. “I thought we did a pretty good job, up until that point.”

For all of three quarters and part of a fourth, the Steelers did do a good job against the Atlanta Falcons. Their quarterback, Tommy Maddox, was on his way to passing for a club-record 473 yards and had already thrown four touchdowns. Their wide receiver, Plaxico Burress, was enjoying the most productive game of his career, having already caught two touchdowns and finishing with a team-record 253 receiving yards.

And the defense had done a good job harnessing Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, holding him, at that point, to 189 yards offense. Meager totals for a player prone to Spider-Man heroics.

Until that point, the Steelers were looking like a good bet to head to Tennessee with a five-game winning streak and a 6-3 record. They were leading, 34-17, and preparing to get the ball back after Vick had been sacked for a third time, this time by outside linebacker Jason Gildon.

“When you’re up by 17 points with [10] minutes to go in the game, however we got there, regardless what had transpired, we must be doing something right,” Cowher said.

But it all went sour shortly thereafter. On the ensuing punt, rookie Antwaan Randle El fumbled the ball after a 2-yard return and Falcons linebacker Mark Simoneau recovered at the Steelers’ 37.

Randle El argued, saying he had retained possession. He even came out of the pileup holding the football. The officials disagreed.

Cowher nonchalantly threw the flag.

“He talked me into [throwing it],” Cowher said of Randle El.

Referee Terry McAulay took so little time to review the play it was as though he wanted to beat the postgame traffic. At the time, it didn’t seem like a big deal.

But, as Randle El said, “That started the rain.”

More appropriate, it started pouring. The Falcons converted the turnover into a 1-yard touchdown run by fullback Bob Christian, then scored 10 points in the final 5:10 to tie the score, 34-34, and force overtime.

Here’s the Reader’s Digest version, courtesy of a disbelieving Cowher:

“They come back and we fumble the punt and they go down and score. Now it’s a 10-point game. We get conservative and it’s still a 10-point game, a two-score game. We try to use the clock and still make some first downs. They get it back and kick a field goal, and then they did a good job at the end. We needed to get that first down. We tried to throw it on third down and we didn’t get it. They got the ball back and put it in No. 7’s hands. He made a few plays.”

The game ended in a 34-34 tie and Cowher spent the first few moments in the locker room trying to convince his players they didn’t lose a game they thought they had won.

They didn’t win, either, something that appeared to be a foregone conclusion in the fourth quarter.

“If I don’t fumble, they don’t have a chance to get started,” Randle El said.

In the postgame news conference, Cowher was peppered with questions about conservative play-calling and debatable strategy. He wasn’t going to stand for it.

“We don’t fumble a punt, these questions wouldn’t be asked,” Cowher said.

Clearly, there was no question Randle El fumbled. He was stripped of the ball by Simoneau, who also was credited with the recovery.

But Randle El claimed he regained possession of the ball shortly after he fumbled.

“I was on top of it the whole time,” he said. “[Simoneau] never had control of the ball. That’s what made me upset. ... I came out with the ball, we had proof I had the ball. That’s why players on our team were having a fit. The official was pointing that it was their ball and I was like, ‘Hold on there, now.’ That’s why I told Coach [Cowher] to challenge it.”

It did not seem like a big deal. Even when the play was upheld, awarding the Falcons possession, the Steelers did not appear to be in trouble.

“They don’t blow many leads like that in the fourth quarter,” Falcons Coach Dan Reeves said.

This time they did.


Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1466.

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