Fifth Down: A Note on Sports History

Today marked the fifth game I am aware of that could be called a “fifth down game” in American football.  I will go over that particular incident in a little bit, but first I would like to provide some history about the rarity of this particular massive error.  Three times in the history of college football a game has been bungled so poorly by referees that a team is granted five chances to either get a first down or a touchdown, but never until today had this error occurred in a professional football game in the United States.  There’s a first for everything, I suppose.

1940:  Dartmouth vs. Cornell

It’s hard to believe that once upon a time Ivy League football games actually mattered, but this game was a notable example not only of an important Ivy League game, but also an excellent example of sportsmanship on the part of the team that was given a “fifth down.”  Dartmouth led 3-0 late in this game, though Cornell had come into the game with 18 straight victories.  As a result of a mistaken extra down at the end of the game, Cornell scored the apparent game-winning touchdown, winning 7-3.  However, the error of having an extra down was discovered after the game was over, and in a gesture of remarkable sportsmanship Cornell forfeited the game, giving the victory to Dartmouth, which is officially recorded as having won the game 3-0 [1].  There’s a triumph of good sportsmanship over bad officiating.

1941:  Ohio State vs. Wisconsin

In this game, played less than a month before Pearl Harbor, Ohio State and Wisconsin combined for 80 points, the highest combined score in the history of their lengthy series.  7 of those points, however, came for Wisconsin in a “fifth down” play that should not have counted.  Unlike the previous fifth down play, this one ended up not being decisive in the scoring margin, and Ohio State ended up winning 46-34 despite Wisconsin’s fifth-down and goal conversion for a touchdown.  Ironically enough, this error was made by the hometown officiating crew at Ohio State, which is a terrible sort of blunder to make against your home team [2].  Someone probably got fired for that mistake.  Ohio State did end up 6-1-1 that year, so they had a good team anyway, good enough to overcome that massive blunder.

1972:  Miami vs. Tulane

This particular example of the “fifth” down is a very obscure one, being the only college game of its type not to be given its own wikipedia listing, ironically enough.  Like the example above with Cornell and Darmouth and below with Colorado and Missouri, the gaffe allowed the wrong team to win, giving Miami a 24-21 victory [3].  It is somewhat obscure why this particular fifth down play should be so obscure given the rarity of the error.  Given the fact that the University of Miami is prominent one, one would think that such an error would be well known among fans of college football.

1990:  Colorado vs. Missouri

This game was, until today, the most recent example of an infamous fifth down play.  Unlike the good sportsmanship shown by Cornell against Dartmouth or the lack of decisiveness in the error as was the case with Ohio State and Wisconsin, this particular error was recognized but without the honorable action taken by the recipient of the error, whose victory was due to the “fifth down” play in question.  However, in this particular case both teams ended up being somewhat victimized by the officiating blunder, which no one noticed during the game–not Colorado, not the officials, and not Missouri, any of whom, had they noticed, would probably have acted differently.  Though Colorado ended up winning the game 33-31 as a result of the error, their victory in such a fashion caused their co-national championship season (with Georgia Tech as the other co-national champion) to be viewed as lacking legitimacy [4].  Both teams ended up losing as a result of the mistaken call.

2010:  Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Washington Redskins

Today, however, was the first example of a “fifth down” play in the NFL.  Like most of the errors, it occurred at the end of the game, but thankfully did not prove decisive, thanks to a horrible blunder on the part of the Washington Redskins holder that led to a botched extra point attempt and a 17-16 victory for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The bungle happened like this:  on a first down and ten on the 12 yard line Redskin QB Donovan McNabb threw a 9 yard pass to Anthony Armstrong that was marked mistakenly by the officiating crew, without measurement, as a first down.  The television crew, realizing it was short, made the correct call and counted it as a second and one, while the crowd in the stadium mistakenly thought that the Redskins had a first and goal due to the mistake of the officiating crew.  The Redskins then called a timeout.  On second down, McNabb threw an incomplete pass.  On third down Torain ran and was tackled inbounds for a loss of four yards, so Washington was forced to call their last timeout.    On fourth down McNabb threw another incomplete pass, but on fifth down McNabb through a touchdown pass to Santana Moss before the botched extra point attempt [5].


It is likely that this particular “fifth down” play will go down in history as a massive officiating blunder, one of several massive mistakes from the officiating crew of that game.  Nonetheless, there really is no recourse for that kind of officiating blunder.  There is no accountability for officials during a game in the last two minutes–because all challenges must come from the booth instead of from the coaches.  Additionally, there is no way after a game is played for even obvious wrongs to be corrected or changed–once the game is played the calls of the officials during that game are considered to be set in stone and cannot be changed after the fact, like the laws of the Medes and Persians.

It is unlikely that anything can really be done about it.  The way rule books are set up, officials have a lot of leeway in making calls, and there are no allowances for replays or corrections after the fact, even when the actions taken are unjust.  It is a curious aspect of sports that blunder and errors are such a huge part of it, and that there is no recourse for them within the structure of the game, which makes fallible human beings the ultimate authorities for calls.  If this is true even in those sports that allow limited challenges (like football), it is even more true for calls where there is no utilization of technology whatsoever to check fallible umpires (like baseball).  Our beloved pastimes lean on the shallow read of human officials whose flaws can often be disastrous but whose mistaken decisions are final.  It is unlikely that as long as human beings are considered to be the final authorities that this will ever change.






About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Musings, Sports and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Fifth Down: A Note on Sports History

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