The Longest Game

I’ve seen a lot of great football in my short life so far, but I sure wish I was alive on Christmas Day, 1971, to see the Kansas City Chiefs take on the Miami Dolphins at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City.

The 1969 Chiefs won Super Bowl IV but the 1970 Chiefs won only seven games in their first season in the NFL. In 1971, however, the team bounced back and went 10-3-1 on their way to the AFC West title. They still had most of the players from their 1969 Super Bowl victory and head coach Hank Stram considered the 1971 squad to be the best he ever coached. All of this set up the playoff game on Christmas Day that would end up being a major turning point for Lamar Hunt’s franchise.

The day was special from the start. It was as if the Dolphins had brought the Miami weather to Kansas City with them. When the game kicked off at 3 PM (CST) the temperature on the field was 62 degrees.

Things started off great for the Chiefs. Kicker Jan Stenerud nailed a 25-yard field goal and QB Len Dawson connected with Ed Podolak for a 7-yard touchdown pass. The Chiefs were up 10-0 at the end of the first. The Dolphins, however, had no intention of going down without a fight. Lead by RB Larry Czonka, the Dolphins stormed back to tie the game at 10 before the half.

The teams kept things even in the 3rd quarter by exchanging TD’s. In the 4th, Podolak continued his stellar day by finding the endzone on a 3-yard run to give the Chiefs the lead. The Dolphins and QB Bob Griese countered with 5-yard TD pass to TE to tie the game late in the 4th.

The kickoff following the the Griese TD pass is when things would start getting crazy for the Chiefs. The kick was fielded by Ed Podolak, who already had two TD’s on the day. Podolak took the kick all the way back to the Miami 22-yardline. With 35-seconds left, Jan Stenerud, who was 1 of 2 on the day, came onto the field to attempt a 32-yard FG to essentially give the Chiefs the win. Unfortunately for Stram and the Chiefs,  Stenerud missed the kick.

We’re going to OT, right?

Not so fast.

An event happened right at the end of regulation that I don’t often hear talked about when folks discuss this game. After Stenerud missed the FG, the Dolphins got the ball back and failed to do anything with it. Facing a 4th down at the very end of regulation, the Dolphins punted the ball to the Chiefs. The punt was fair caught by Dennis Homan as time expired and the two teams went to the first overtime.

But they didn’t have to. There is an obscure NFL rule called the “Fair Catch Kick.” The rule is rarely used because the situation where exercising it would be beneficial almost never comes up.

Basically any time a team is receiving a punt from their opponent, they can fair catch it and request a fair catch kick. That means that they can attempt a FG with a holder from the spot of the fair catch. The defense must stand 10-yards away, giving the kicker more time for a full running start as opposed to the usual two-step approach. This would make longer FG’s possible.

The problem with the fair catch kick is that is almost never makes sense to use it. Here is an explanation from Wikipedia:

A fair catch kick is very rarely attempted, as only a specific combination of circumstances makes it advantageous for the receiving side. The punt or free kick must be fair-caught at a point close enough to make a field goal attempt plausible. There will usually be insufficient time to run more than one play from scrimmage, so is only likely to be seen when the punt would otherwise be the last or next-to-last play of the half. If occurring in the second half, the receiving team would presumably be tied or trailing by three points or fewer so that a successful field goal is significant. Finally, when these rare circumstances are present, a well-coached kicking team should recognize that it is not in their best interests to allow their opponents to make a successful fair catch. They may thus employ any of several tactics to avoid that outcome, such as deliberately kicking the ball out of bounds or far away from any opponent, or running a non-punting play from scrimmage that allows the game clock to expire safely.

As you can see, the only time it would make sense to attempt a fair catch kick would be at the very end of a half or game when there is no more time to run an offense. In fact, there have only been five successful fair catch kicks in the history of the NFL. No team has succeeded in making a fair catch kick since 1976.

Back on Christmas Day, 1971, however, the circumstances were perfect for a fair catch kick attempt. When Dennis Homan fielded the fair catch and time expired, coach Hank Stram and the Chiefs could have requested a fair catch kick. According to the rule, even if time expires during the punt, the receiving team can still request the kick and the play will be run with no time on the clock.

The ball was fair caught by Homan on the KC 32-yardline. Since the goal post was still on the goal line in 1971, a fair catch kick from the KC 32 would have been a 68-yard kick. The longest FG Stenerud had ever made was 55-yards, however the fair catch kick would have given him a full running start with almost no chance of having the kick blocked. Could he have gotten the extra 18-yards of mustard on the kick ro send the Chiefs to the AFC Championship?

Unfortunately we never got to find out. Stram feared that Miami return man Mercury Morris, who was selected to the Pro Bowl in 71’ and lead the AFC in return average, would return a short kick and win the game.

Instead the Chiefs opted for the extra period. The Chiefs took the opening kickoff and set up Stenerud for a 42-yard FG for the win but the Dolphins blocked the kick. Later in the period, Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian attempted a 52-yard FG but missed.

Finally, with 7:40 to go in the 2nd overtime, Yepremian hit a 37-yard FG to send the Dolphins to the AFC Championship. The kick concluded the longest game in NFL history. When all was said and done, the Chiefs and Dolphins did battle for 82 minutes and 42 seconds.

Podolak had a ridiculous day, chipping in 349 all-purpose yards. He had eight catches for 110 yards, 17 carries for 85 yards and three kickoff returns for 154 yards. He also added two touchdowns. At the time, Podolak’s 349 yards was an NFL record and though it has been broken, he is still 4th on the list. Simply amazing.

Unfortunately Podolak’s efforts were not enough and Stenerud ended the day 1 of 4 on field goals. It was perhaps the most gut wrenching performance by a Chiefs kicker since The Kicker Who Must Not Be Named (there might be children reading) missed from 35, 39, and 42 yards in a 10-7 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts in 1996 in a game I DID watch.

In the end, Stenerud probably never would have made that 68-yard fair catch kick but I can’t help wondering what might have happened had he tried it. Had Stram given it a shot, Stenerud could have changed probably one of the worst days in his career into the best by nailing the longest kick in NFL history.

Instead, the Chiefs lost and the glory years were over.

What do you think Addicts? How many of you watched that game? When regulation ended, did the announcer talk about the opportunity the Chiefs had to try a fair catch kick? Do you think they should have?

Sound off!

Topics: Kansas City Chiefs, Len Dawson, Lonest NFL Game, Miami Dolphins

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