x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Spare a thought for the zeroes as well as the NFL play-off heroes

Amid the hype and excitment of the Super Bowl week, it is hard not to feel for Billy Cundiff and Kyle Williams, whose errors cost the Ravens and 49ers a shot at the title.

The Baltimore Ravens's Billy Cundiff, back, missed the chance to tie the AFC Championship Game late on against the Patriots.
The Baltimore Ravens's Billy Cundiff, back, missed the chance to tie the AFC Championship Game late on against the Patriots.

While other Americans are planning Super Bowl parties, I am going in another direction. I intend to stage a pity party, out of compassion for Billy Cundiff, the Baltimore kicker, and Kyle Williams, the San Francisco wide receiver.

Two mistakes by Williams, who is San Francisco's stand-in punt returner, made him culpable in keeping the 49ers out of the Super Bowl. And a wayward field goal attempt left Cundiff with the blood of Baltimore's loss on his hands. Or, more precisely, his right foot.

Instead of party hats, guests at my gathering will wear masks in a show of sympathy for the players who will need disguises to get around anonymously for awhile.

Whatever food is served, it cannot be goat. We need no reminders of two of the biggest goats ever on conference championship Sunday.

Discussion of the presidential elections is discouraged. Some candidate might be labelled as leaning to the left, a painful reminder of Cundiff's kick.

Guests are not allowed to wave to each other. The gesture bears to much resemblance to the signal for a fair catch, which is maybe what Williams should have motioned to avoid fumbling.

Hey, I really do feel for these guys. They have been drawn and quartered in the harsh arena of social media, where reaction has been predictably virulent.

But they should not bear the burden of defeat alone. Cundiff's sideways kick - that, if even semi-straight, would have sent the AFC final into overtime - was one of 147 snaps.

And even though Williams muffed a punt in the fourth quarter, resulting in a Giants' recovery and go-ahead touchdown, then fumbled in overtime to set up New York's winning field goal, there were 152 other plays of scrimmage, some of which the 49ers did not execute with Joe Montana perfection.

Both deserve better.

Take Cundiff. He believed he could finally put down some roots in Baltimore, his ninth NFL team in a decade, when he signed last year for $14.7 million (Dh54m) over five seasons. One hooked 32-yarder in crunch time might compel him to get out of town - for good.

Kickers have it tough enough. Nobody wears a replica of their jersey. They are issued shrunken shoulder pads, as if teams wonder why waste a full set of pads on a player who avoids contact.

Cundiff might look like the stereotype of the unathletic kicker, but he did play basketball in college.

As for Williams, he was filling in for the regular return man Ted Ginn Jr, laid up with an injury. He did advance a kick-off 40 yards that set up the 49ers' tying field goal, forcing overtime. And he suspects he separated a shoulder in the third quarter.

The pair must be popular among teammates. Otherwise, testimony in their favour would not have been voiced afterward.

"There is no one man who has ever lost a game," Ray Lewis, the Ravens linebacker, said of Cundiff, who had not missed a fourth-quarter attempt in two seasons.

"We're going to show him lots of love," Donte Whitner, the 49ers safety, said of Williams. The defeat "is not his fault".

Further, Williams is, by the standards of his circle of colleagues, a pauper. (He made just above the league minimum of $450,000 for second-year players). A little sensitivity, huh?

I do not envy either, aside from the fact their salaries put them among the nation's so-called one per cent - and that they are on holiday throughout July.

Until then, when one of them can split the uprights once again and the other no longer must split time between receiving and returning, they will be kicking themselves.

Hence, my pity party on behalf of Cundiff and Williams, where refreshments will be served out of an no-frills, ordinary-looking punch bowl. So there is no chance someone refers to it as a super bowl.