The Dallas Cowboys – New Orleans Saints game revealed everything that is both right and wrong with America’s favorite sports league. As an epic shootout unfolded in Texas Stadium, a decision reminiscent of the infamous Heidi Game left fans around the country disappointed.
The Dallas Cowboys were fighting for their playoff lives. In the NFC East, the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins all entered the week with identical 8-6 records. New Orleans was sitting at 7-7, and focused on playing spoiler and fighting for pride.
The game came down to the wire, as Tony Romo led the Cowboys back from a 14-point deficit in the last 4 minutes, completing a 16-yard TD pass to Dwayne Harris with 3:35 left in the fourth and then a 19-yard TD pass to Miles Austin with 0:15 left to force overtime. Both quarterbacks threw for over 400 yards and combined for 7 TD passes and no interceptions. The game featured over 1,000 yards of combined offense and only 1 turnover.
So what happened, as the teams prepared for overtime in Texas? The network cut away to show the late game “in its entirety,” and apologized saying they were forced to cut away “due to NFL regulations.” While the Cowboys continued fighting for their life through overtime, NFL fans were treated to pregame announcements for the Giants-Ravens game, and a three-and-out by the New York Giants.
To be fair, the Heidi game was worse. For those who are too young to remember, the video below sums it up pretty well. Back in 1968, NBC elected to cut away from the closing minutes of a game between the Raiders and Jets to show the film Heidi “in its entirety.” The cut occurred with New York leading 32-29 and missed the Raiders comeback to defeat the Jets 43-32. Thirty-four points were scored in the fourth quarter of that game, but the deciding 14 were missed by the national audience.
The Heidi decision was historically bad for several reasons. First, NFL fans were served a dose of Heidi, a film targeted at pre-pubescent girls, and they actually cut away in the middle of the fourth quarter (to stick with the movie start time of 7pm). Keep in mind that this was 1968, when there were three channels to pick from, and a few decades before you could follow the game on the internet.
To find out the final score, fans actually had to watch Heidi (which I believe has since been outlawed as cruel and unusual punishment) and wait for a scroll across the bottom telling them the final score, or they would have to wait for the late night news or the morning paper. In recent years, we’ve gotten very spoiled by having immediate access to scores and stats (personally, I get annoyed when it takes my phone 10 seconds to update the scores).
But the Saints-Cowboys cutaway was bad for another reason. It wasn’t a network decision; it was actually mandated by NFL regulations. Essentially, the NFL forced the network to cut away from overtime. The NFL has a lot of rules governing what gets covered and why, but this was a big example of not putting the interest of the fans first and foremost in their minds. Unlike 1968, the networks have a very strong incentive to put the best product on the air, and they pay a king’s ransom to get access to that product. Recent changes have allowed some scheduling latitude to put the best games in prime time, which has improved the selection of games that national audiences get to see.
It’s time to broaden the rules a little bit more so that the networks have the flexibility to put the best product on the air. Incidentally, the Saints won in overtime 34-31.