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Cris Collinsworth has bittersweet memories of his Giants-49ers announcing faux pas

This Oct. 21, 2012 file photo shows NFL

This Oct. 21, 2012 file photo shows NFL announcer Cris Collinsworth prior to an NFL football game between the Bengals and Steelers in Cincinnati. Credit: AP

Cris Collinsworth was wrapping up his first playoff game as a member of Fox's lead NFL team, alongside Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, when he left Candlestick Park on Jan. 5, 2003, feeling good about himself.

"I walked out of there thinking, man, I was a brilliant broadcaster that day, and we nailed it," Collinsworth said, now that he can laugh about it.

It turned out he wasn't, but he was not alone on a long list of people who made mistakes in San Francisco that day during one of the strangest, most controversial games in NFL history.

"Believe me, you won't forget it, and I won't forget it," he said during a break in preparing for Sunday night's 49ers-Giants game -- which as far as he, Fox and NBC can tell will be his first between the teams since that infamous wild-card game.

Space -- and preserving sanity -- precludes recapping here everything that happened in the Giants' 39-38 loss. Briefly:

The Giants blew a 38-14 third-quarter lead, Trey Junkin botched a snap on the potential winning field goal and the officials missed a last-second pass interference call, an error Paul Tagliabue labeled the most disappointing moment involving officiating in his then 13 years as commissioner.

But back to Collinsworth and his role in the drama. With six seconds left the Giants set up for a 41-yard field-goal try that would have given them the lead. It was third down.

When holder Matt Allen pulled the ball away from kicker Matt Bryant, who had hesitated when Junkin's snap came in low, he flung the ball downfield and his desperation pass fell incomplete.

Allen could have thrown the ball out of bounds or fallen on it and called timeout. What he could not have done was what Collinsworth told a national TV audience he should have done: Spike it.

Initially fans across the country assumed Collinsworth had hit on what might have been a game-saving strategy for poor Allen, causing a storm of discussion even in a pre-Twitter era.

Much later they learned that spiking the ball is illegal unless it is snapped from under center. Had Allen spiked it, he would have been penalized and the game would have ended there.

"There was a huge to-do in New York," Collinsworth said. "I thought I was brilliant, I really did. I said all the holder had to do was just stand up, spike the ball and re-kick it.

"Unfortunately for me, the word 'spike' is a definition that means something very specific to the NFL. If I had said he just has to get up and throw the ball away and he would have been able to re-kick it, that would be fine.

"In my mind that was all I was saying. But you use the word 'spike,' that means under center."

Collinsworth instructed Fox's public relations department to accept any request from a radio station or newspaper in New York that Monday for him to come on and talk about his analysis or anything else about the game.

"I said, 'I'll take them all,' " he recalled. "I've never seen a city angrier."

The Giants-49ers game led to changes in officials' procedures, specifically requiring more on-field discussion among them. It also helped spur networks to employ officiating analysts, a role pioneered by Mike Pereira, who was the NFL's superverisor of officials at the time of the Giants-49ers game.

"I probably say it once a week on the air: I don't know how you officiate these games, I really don't," Collinsworth said.

"I feel like it's a little bit like doing your taxes, right? I have an accounting degree and a law degree, and there's no doubt if I did my own taxes, despite having those two degrees, I would be arrested.

"Is there a way to simplify it? I don't know. It's not my job. It seems like there is.

"Something as simple as: What's a catch in this league right now? That's one of the most fundamental things you can talk about, right? Oh, he caught the ball. But it's something that has been so widely argued and disputed over the years that it's crazy."

Collinsworth cited as a helpful simplification the elimination of the old rule that required officials to determine whether a receiver had been forced out after catching the ball. Now he must land inbounds, regardless. Simple.

The Giants and 49ers have played each other since that wild-card playoff game, of course, including in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick after the 2011 season. But nothing has topped the 2003 game for multilayered wackiness.

"There comes a point in blowouts where you go, OK, it's time to start emptying the saddle bags and telling some stories and all the things you know about these teams," Collinsworth said. "I always say that we have enough information that we've gathered over the course of the week that if they canceled the game we could still fill the three hours. We would have no problems.

"Some games that point comes in the second quarter and you start telling stories and doing talk radio. In that game we had already started that process and it was just a blowout. Then when you pile on top of that it was a playoff game and everything that happened, yeah, believe me, you won't forget it, I won't forget it."

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