FRONDORF: Unwritten rules are made to be broken

Maybe we should keep a closer eye on coaches’ conduct after a game: They can’t even seem to get through the postgame handshake without going at it.

Last year, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh shook Lions coach Jim Schwartz’s hand just a little too forcefully after a tense game, nearly resulting in fisticuffs. On Sunday, the Giants-Buccaneers game concluded with New York coach Tom Coughlin screaming at first-year Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano.

There was no violence this time around, only some “lighthearted” lessons from a star teacher to a rookie scholar. But what was it all about?

The end-of-game kneel-down, the least interesting play in football.

When the Giants’ Eli Manning took a knee to seal a no-defense 41–34 victory on Sunday, the Bucs weren’t quite ready to shut things down in East Rutherford, N.J. Schiano ordered his defense to try to tackle the unaware Manning, with the hope of dislodging the ball. For anyone who watches college football or the NFL regularly, this is rare and quite aggressive. Manning obviously didn’t expect it; he was forcefully jolted backward onto the ground (with ball securely in hand, however). No harm, no foul, right? Coughlin didn’t think so, barking, “You don’t do that in this league.”

Does that matter — that “you don’t do that in this league”?

Coughlin may be a coach who wins by upholding traditional strategic principles, but that doesn’t mean anything that breaks from tradition is wrong. Attacking the kneel-down is not against the rules, and Schiano responded, “There’s nothing dirty about it.” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello agreed with the usual bureaucratic language. “There were no violations on the play or afterward that would require follow-up from our office,” he said.

That’s settled. Not a rules violation? Then go right ahead.

I’m tired of coaches and managers dictating what’s allowed and not allowed in a game. Prohibited behavior begins and ends with the last page of the rulebook. When coaches aren’t allowed to try anything new, there’s no room for innovation in football strategy. Where would football be today if we didn’t occasionally try and break this guarded code of “unwritten rules”? Maybe we wouldn’t have Walter Camp’s forward pass, and maybe Tony Reno wouldn’t have been “allowed” to try a fake punt against Georgetown last Saturday.

And let’s be honest, the final minute of a close NFL game should be exciting, not inevitably determined by the pleasantries and tradition of taking a knee. Far too often a team is up by a touchdown and merely whittles away the clock with a couple of kneel-downs. Manning justified the Giants’ decision to run the clock by saying, “We’re taking a knee … in a friendly way.” I’m not sure if the kneel-down is the pinnacle of sportsmanship, but rather a way for a team to play it safe and secure the victory.

Would you not like to see a losing team do something with that remaining time? A game lasts 60 minutes, not 58 or so minutes until the leading team takes possession and does absolutely nothing. Perhaps Schiano, who said he used this end-of-game play while coaching at Rutgers, is merely advancing the game through this aggressive strategy, giving a losing team more chances to win — just as the fake punt, the onside kick and other trick plays have modernized the game. It’s not likely to work, but why not try? Don’t we want more chances for a comeback? As the rookie coach said in a press conference after the game, “[We] fight until they say, ‘Game over.’” This might come off as banal motivational coach-speak, but he actually makes a good point, considering the last two minutes of football are often some of the most boring.

I don’t want to ignore the more nuanced argument Coughlin made during postgame interviews. Last year’s Super Bowl ring-earner continued his tirade against the play by expounding on his earlier thoughts. “You jeopardize the offensive line. You jeopardize the quarterback. Thank goodness we didn’t get anyone hurt — that we know of.”

Now his thesis has an argument to back it up. He’s a few footnotes and empirical statistics away from a B+ paper. Surely, we want to reduce the potential for injury in football as much as possible without overly distorting the nature of the game. To Coughlin, I’m sure the play seemed unnecessary, with the chance of success far outweighing the potential risk posed to both teams — and on that level, he may be right. The NFL has moved kickoff distances forward, increased scrutiny on rough hits and implemented tougher rules for the return of concussed players. More contact isn’t necessarily good for a sport that’s having a hard time reconciling with its brutal nature.

And if attacking the kneel-down becomes more widespread, NFL offenses will adjust. Defenses gutsy enough to try the play will eventually be met by an O-line that’s prepared for the onslaught of linebackers. The chances for success will decrease dramatically, and the end-of-game situation will arrive at a similar steady-state equilibrium. The leading team takes possession. The quarterback kneels down, and players at the line of scrimmage will tussle head-to-head instead of waiting patiently for the end of the game. In fact, this is a worse equilibrium than we started with; we’re left with the same result as before, but with more chance for injury. I’m sure Coughlin didn’t work through all the game theory before the postgame press conference, but thinking through the future of a play such as this gives some credence to his rant.

Maybe the NFL needs a rule preventing contact during a kneel-down. But I’ll side with Schiano for now — no such rule is in place. Until then, I have absolutely no problem with teams using any legal strategy or advantage possible to win. In fact, I encourage players and coaches to do so whenever possible; it makes the game more unpredictable — and more exciting — for the rest of us.

No apology necessary, Schiano — what Coughlin thinks “you don’t do” doesn’t matter.

Comments

  • Yalie

    Agreed. Outlaw the kneel down, and downing the ball with no timeouts left, which seems like intentional grounding to me. I too am sick of coaches determining what’s acceptable or not: if it’s in the rules, I’ll damn well try it if I think it makes sense.

    If I want to steal with a ten-run lead? Fine – stop me if you can. If I’m up by five touchdowns and go for two? Fine – stop me if you can. If my guys are up by five or six goals, I want them to go for seven or eight. I didn’t pay to watch them knock the ball around for a half.

    It’s the other team’s job to stop me, not mine.

  • An_Observer

    Forget about Tony Reno. I wish the rules had disallowed Tom Williams from trying a fake punt.

  • River_Tam

    I think the problem that people have with the Bucs’ play is that it’s an essentially zero-probability of success (incredibly low chance of forcing a fumble on the play, plus you have to recover AND run it in to the end zone), but a non-trivial probability of an injury, ESPECIALLY because the Giants’ players were not expecting it.

    The play only works because the Giant’s players aren’t expecting contact, and that’s precisely what increases their injury risk. If the O-line had been ready, there’d be no chance of forcing a fumble (cf: see what happens on a goal line defense).

    The rules shouldn’t be changed, but Coughlin is right to be miffed.