SAN DIEGO - Somewhere between John Elway famously helicoptering his way to a first down and Broncos owner Pat Bowlen holding up the Lombardi Trophy and saying "This one's for John," there came a controversial coaching decision. Lost among Terrell Davis' three rushing touchdowns and John Elway's first Super Bowl victory was the decision by Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren to let the Broncos score the game-winning touchdown to give the Packers time for a potential game-tying drive. It was a gutsy call, one showing an incredible amout of faith in his offense and quarterback Brett Favre.
And it was the wrong one.
It's easy to say in retrospect that Holmgren did the wrong thing. Knowing what we know now - that Favre's last-ditch drive that started out looking so promising would end up fizzling out on a fourth-down incompletion at the Broncos' 35 - it's easy to say "See? He shouldn't have let them score! How can you do that in the Super Bowl?" But that's not why it was the wrong thing to do. It was wrong because Holmgren had the down wrong.
After a tense, back-and-forth game, the defending champion Packers had tied Super Bowl XXXII at 24 on a 13-yard pass from Favre to Antonio Freeman just more than a minute into the fourth quarter. From there, both defenses tightened up, and the score remained tied until the Broncos got the ball at midfield with 3:27 left. A facemask penalty and a 23-yard pass gave the Broncos first-and-goal from the 8.
This is where Holmgren's confusion likely set in. On the first play inside the 10, the Broncos committed a holding penalty, pushing the ball back to the 18-yard line. On first-and-goal from the 18, Davis carried the ball down to the 1-yard line with 1:47 left. Likely forgetting about the penalty, Holmgren thought this run gave the Broncos a first down and that, with the Packers holding only two time outs, they wouldn't have enough time to drive down field if the Broncos sufficiently ran out the clock. But it was second down, meaning that if the Packers had gotten two stops, the Broncos would have likely been kicking a go-ahead field goal with about 1:40 or so left on the clock - plenty of time for Favre to try for a last-ditch drive.
As it was, the Packers let Davis run in for the one-yard touchdown. Favre got the Packers down as far as the Denver 31 yard line in the fourth, but ran into two bits of bad luck. The first came when Freeman couldn't hold on to a pass that would have given Green Bay the ball at the 15 yard line, and the second came when the Packers had to use their final time out after that play because of an injured player. After Favre's final pass was broken up, the Broncos celebrated their first Super Bowl victory.
Would the final drive have played out differently if Holmgren had known the proper down and distance? Possibly. The Packers were in field goal range when their final drive fizzled out. But there's no guarantee they would have stopped Davis twice at the one-yard line anyway. And there's no guarantee the Broncos would have played the same prevent-style defense on the last drive if they were only holding a 3-point lead rather than a 7-point lead. Either way, the game has become known for Davis' three touchdowns and Elways famous helicopter run rather than for Holgren's gaffe, and it's probably better that way.