Looking back at the 50th anniversary of The ‘Heidi’ Game

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Half a century ago, what former NBC broadcast supervisor Dick Cline believed to be just “another week of the NFL,” came an event that would forever alter how people experience live sports. It’s been 50 years since the famous ‘Heidi game’, a historic matchup between the American Football League rivals the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders on November 17th, 1968.

The showdown aired live on NBC and was famously nicknamed after Heidi, a movie about a young Swiss orphan, unceremoniously cut in to the game’s live broadcast. Cline was in charge of making sure the children’s movie aired on time – even if there was 1:05 seconds left in the game and the Jets are up 32-29.

That week in particular, NBC, the sales department and the telephone company confirmed that the 7:00-9:00 pm time slot had been sold to Timex. That slot was to be used to air Heidi and Cline was under strict instruction to make sure it aired at its allotted time.

“When the sales department said at 7:00 o’clock we have to go to Heidi, we didn’t think anything of it because a game never ran long, ” Cline said, as NFL games never ran over 7:00 pm in the past.

At 7 sharp, just as scheduled, Cline aired Heidi. Not long after, phone calls flooded the station, causing NBC’s switchboards to blow out. There was such a large volume of angry callers waiting to demand the game be put back on that the station required new fuses to keep the switchboards running. Many people called, but no one at the station could answer.

When asked if there were any complaints in particular that he could remember, Cline said that because of the rate at which the calls were coming in that caused issues with the switchboards, the calls couldn’t even be answered.

“They didn’t do a whole lot of talking,” Cline said jokingly.

One of the many incoming calls came from NBC’s president at the time, Julian Goodman. Goodman was eager for the game to be back on air and made efforts to contact Cline using a private line, but by then, there was nothing Cline could do.

“In 1968, there were no satellites, there were no cellphones. I had no way of getting back to the telephone company which was controlling the lines and telling them to go back to the game.”

As some viewers sat back and enjoyed Heidi, the Jets ended up blowing their lead. The Raiders scored two touchdowns in just nine seconds, winning 43-32. That’s when the wrath from fans really surfaced.

“They were more unnerved that not only did they not see the last minute and a half of the game, the Jets lost the game.”

Cline had been prepped by the network on how to handle situations where time runs over, but the Heidi game was the first time they experienced that. That game changed the standard for televised football games today, where the protocol now is to air the game until it is complete.

Looking back, Cline has no regrets about the decision he made to air Heidi instead of finishing the game. Though he didn’t see it as such at the time, that very choice changed the course of televised sports.

NFL TV, radio host Rich Eisen explains new pass interference replay

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Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Rich Eisen, the popular NFL television and radio host.

Previous guest columns: Fred Gaudelli (June 3) | Nick Hardwick (June 10) | Pro Football Focus (June 17)

By Rich Eisen

It was an overcast 30-degree night at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, a classic setting for an exhilarating finish to the Week 15 Thursday game. Despite entering the contest having won nine of their previous 10 games, the Chargers still needed a victory to have a chance at the AFC West title that the Chiefs, thanks to their wunderkind eventual MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, would eventually win.

Just not on that night.

Coming back from a 14-point first-quarter deficit, Philip Rivers some how some way had his team stationed on the Kansas City 10-yard line down seven points with 13 seconds to go. Rivers flipped one in the end zone to Mike Williams and Chiefs defensive back Kendall Fuller got flagged for interference. It was a huge penalty, turning a Chargers’ 3rd-and-goal from the 10 into a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.

On the next two snaps, Rivers connected with Williams, one for his second touchdown of the night and then on a remarkable two-point conversion dice roll by Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn. Los Angeles won and celebrated in the Kansas City cold, providing Friday morning coast-to-coast water-cooler material that’s the envy of every other major American sports league.

Cut to last week—six months later, almost to the day—to a hotel conference room in June gloomy Santa Monica. Video of the defensive pass interference call on Fuller was now up on a screen and the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron had a video game remote controller in his hands, toggling the play back and forth. I was in the audience as part of the NFL Media Group’s annual talent symposium, hanging onto every word coming out of Riveron’s mouth during his presentation to the group.

Our jaws were about to drop.

You see, between that Thursday Night Week 15 monster finish and our annual symposium to prepare us for the 2019 regular season, a seismic event took place at the Superdome that’s still reverberating across the football landscape. Yes, the ending of the NFC Championship Game between the Saints and the Rams. The mother of all blown calls, leading to the mother of all course corrections: the NFL allowing pass interference to be a reviewable penalty under the auspices of instant replay in a one-year experiment.

Look, I’m not gonna lie. I’m not spending a good chunk of my downtime to bang out about 3,000 words for my good friend Peter King and post them on a special day in my life (more on that in a moment) just to BS you. That non-call in the NFC Championship Game in New Orleans was the worst non-call I’ve ever seen. It was a terrible day for the NFL and Al Riveron, and all the NFL executives making the rounds to present at all the summer symposiums for CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and NFL Network know it.

So when Riveron stepped to the mic at the NFL Network gathering last week  and finally matriculated his way to the pass interference replay portion of his two-hour presentation to the group, it was like a large piece of filet mignon steak being plated for the whole room to consume. It not only offered a remarkable glimpse of the difficult task his officials will undertake in 2019, but also how unintended consequences of the new replay wrinkle might cause occasional confusion and frequently stoke fan anger anew.

To read more about the pass interference replay, click here 

Cris Collinsworth, Pro Football Focus writers explain how analytics are changing the NFL

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Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s a collaborative effort by Pro Football Focus, the popular football analytics website. To start, here’s PFF Majority Owner and NBC’s Sunday Night Football color analyst Cris Collinsworth.

How data is impacting the landscape of football

When I broadcast my first NFL game during the 1989 season, I had absolutely no idea what to study or how to study. NBC provided me with a handful of newspaper articles, we watched some film at the team facility on Friday before the game, and we interviewed some players and coaches. I took notes, but I didn’t even have a board with the players’ names and numbers on it.

I was thrown into the deep end of the pool. This was going to be the shortest broadcasting career ever. Luckily, I had David Michaels as my producer (yes, Al Michaels’ brother). David had worked for years with Terry Bradshaw, and Terry had created these boards for calling games. The positions were aligned on this board where they would line up on the field. Offense facing defense, back-ups behind starters. All I had to do was fill in the blanks. Once again, my friend Terry was ahead of his time, and David showed me how to use it.

When I think back to those days, it’s pretty comical. Today, I could never read, watch or study all the data that I have available to me. In 2014, I bought controlling interest in Pro Football Focus. At the time we had 60 employees evaluating every player on every play of the NFL season. Now we have nearly 500 employees, providing data to 90 NFL and NCAA teams, multiple television networks and individuals who use it for private purposes. I won’t get into all the details, but if you are a data scientist, mathematician or IT specialist, and you love football, we are hiring.

PFF has already changed the way I think about building a team and play-calling. I can remember a time when everybody thought Andy Reid was crazy for passing 60% of the time. He doesn’t look so crazy now. I remember when running backs were thought to be the most valuable position; now they are considered the easiest to replace based on our WAR (wins above replacement) metric. I think it is fair to say that now very few NFL contracts are negotiated without PFF data being at the heart of the debate. The agent pitches all the positive data about the player, and the team is loaded with all the not so positive data. Some of those negotiating stories are pretty entertaining.

But as much as the data has changed broadcasting, it has changed the game of football even more. “Gut instincts” are no longer good enough. Decisions must be made based on the data. Every year at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, PFF meets with nearly every team. I always laugh when somebody starts telling me about “old school” coaches in the league. I won’t mention names, but some of the “old school” coaches have recently blown me away with their knowledge of the data.

I sat in on a meeting with a team that had seven data scientists, mathematicians and IT specialists from Harvard, Stanford and M.I.T. all in the room, and they were loaded with questions that would make your head spin. Luckily, I had the people in the room with the answers. Of course, there are teams that are not quite that sophisticated, and it is getting more and more difficult for them to compete. The data arms race is very real, and it is widening the gap between those who engage, and those who don’t.

The fans are now engaged in the data arms race, as well. Fantasy football had always created a market for data, but since May 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act that effectively barred state-authorized sports gambling, a new aspect in the arms race has opened to fans. Whether anyone likes it or not, there is no stopping state-sponsored gambling on football and other sports. We have seen a real spike in our consumer sales of our Edge and Elite products. Some fans just want to know more about their team, others want to be the smartest person at the water cooler, some want to dominate their fantasy league, and others still are writing their own gambling algorithms. Regardless, there is no going back now. Data has changed the game.

 

For more PFF writers’ analysis, read more from this week’s Football Morning in America here