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FLAG ON A HAIL MARY? PITIFUL REFEREES REACH NEW LOW

FOXBORO, Mass. -- There is no safe haven.

Hide under the bed? If you are a football team, they will find you. Conceal yourself in the darkest corner of the basement? They'll search you out. Take on an assumed identity like a government informant? They'll track you down.

They are the game officials of the National Football League, the guys in the zebra suits who dominate the 1998 NFL season, snatching games from the players on the field and deciding themselves who gets where in the division races.

This season, those officials can't even get a vital coin toss straight. Sunday in Foxboro Stadium, they decided the Buffalo-New England game, giving life to the Patriots' season and burglarizing the Bills' share of first place in the tightly contested AFC East.

I began covering pro football before Bill Clinton reached the age of puberty. Sunday I witnessed a first -- a penalty called on a Hail Mary pass.

I surveyed veteran reporters from both Boston papers, from the Providence Journal and ESPN. None of them had ever heard of such a penalty. Calling a penalty on a Hail Mary pass is like standing 100 yards past the start of a marathon and deciding who is in 102nd place as the runners stampede by you.

The last time I made a fuss in print over NFL officiating was in the mid-1970s, when Miami was pounding on the Bills twice a season and a bizarre penalty against Buffalo may have cost them a chance at a rare victory. I swore off official baiting back then, but this is an exception. In fact, the entire NFL season is an exception.

Thanksgiving Day in Detroit, referee Phil Luckett screwed up the coin toss, giving the Lions the ball on the first possession of overtime. There was no second possession. Jason Hanson kicked the winning field goal before Pittsburgh could get its hands on the ball. Luckett's error turned around the Steelers' season.

When the Bills defeated San Francisco Oct. 4, referee Dick Hantak's officiating crew set an all-time record for penalties called. Last week Hantak and his pals returned for another flag festival in Buffalo's victory over Indianapolis.

Yet it took the work of Walt Coleman's crew Sunday to set a standard so low the down elevator doesn't reach that level.

They warmed up by dropping a half dozen flags in the first quarter alone. It was in the fourth quarter that they took away the game from the players. During Buffalo's 67-yard touchdown drive to take the lead, 21-17, eight penalties were called, four on each team.

It seemed the Bills would safely hold that lead when the Patriots were confronted by a fourth and 9 from the Bills' 36 with no timeouts remaining. That meant Drew Bledsoe couldn't even stop the clock by spiking the ball.

So Bledsoe threw a sideline pass to Shawn Jefferson. It appeared to Buffalo players and those who watched the replay that Jefferson was out of bounds when he made the catch. Not only that, but even if the catch had been legitimate, the gain was short of the first-down marker.

Andre Reed, one of four Bills who were standing very close to the play, said there was confusion among two officials over the legitimacy of the catch. He quoted one of them as telling the other, "Just give it to 'em."

Now there were six seconds left with New England 26 yards away from the goal line. There was just one thing for Bledsoe to do: Throw it up into the end zone and hope. As it turned out, with Coleman's bozos on the job, there was plenty of hope.

"The receiver (Terry Glenn) was up to catch the ball," Coleman told a pool reporter. "He (Bills' safety Henry Jones) just went right through the receiver. "He (Jones) was not playing the ball and made contact with the receiver."

Went through the receiver? Made contact with the receiver? When DOESN'T that happen during a Hail Mary? It's a group grope. An official could throw a flag on every Hail Mary pass ever attempted. As far as I know, it never happened before Coleman's guys blazed this questionable trail.

The officials not only decided this game in New England's favor, they soiled what had been a spectacular battle of charismatic quarterbacks. It was Bledsoe's finest hour, which began last Monday night when he beat Miami in the final minute despite breaking the index finger of his passing hand in two places. He wasn't even expected to play Sunday, but he carried his team for the entire game.

Flutie, who hadn't lost in Foxboro Stadium in 10 previous appearances, was magnificent. His finest moment may have occurred during the Bills' last touchdown drive when they were confronted by a third and 11. He tore around left end and, when two Patriot defenders blocked his way to the first-down marker, he dived and executed what looked like a reverse barrel roll, shoving the ball past the marker with his left hand.

Sometime this week the Bills, as well as the Steelers, are likely to get phone calls from the NFL saying how sorry the main office is over the shoddy work of its officials. Beyond that, there is no recourse.

The way this season is going, the league ought to save on its phone bills by ordering sympathy cards from Hallmark.

By the gross.

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