Play Until to the Whistle Blows: Challenging an NFL Hypocrisy
Imagine you’re running a race. Maybe you didn’t hear the starting gun or you’re just feeling sluggish on this particular day, but you’re slow coming off the block. After this rough start, you’re lagging behind in distant second while your opponent cruises to a comfortable lead. About three quarters of the way through the race, though, you turn on the afterburners and sprint ahead, leaving your opponent in the dust.
With an unlikely victory securely in your grasp, you slow to a trot and glide toward the finish line. Suddenly, you hear your opponent coming up behind you, making one last attempt to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. You’re able to lunge across the line first, so no harm, no foul; however, your premature celebration was spoiled.
As that runner, do you confront your opponent for poor sportsmanship? Do you cry out that the win was rightfully yours from the moment you entered your trot? That is what Tom Coughlin did on Sunday, and for some reason, he’s getting praised for it.
The head coach of the New York Giants kept calm and stuck to his gameplan against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, even when his team was down 27-13 early in the third quarter. New York came out firing on all cylinders in the fourth, outscoring Tampa Bay 25-7 in the final period to pull out a 41-34 win.
With five seconds left on the clock, the Giants lined up in the victory formation, signaling to the Bucs that they would kneel down and let the remaining time tick away. To Coach Coughlin, the final play was a formality. Each side sends its guys out, they take a knee, everyone shakes hands. Only one thing didn’t go according to plan: Tampa Bay decided to keep playing defense. The Bucs bull-rushed the Giants’ inattentive offensive line, knocking down quarterback Eli Manning when he intended to go down on his own. No one was injured on the play, and the final five seconds did still run off the clock, so no harm, no foul, right?
Wrong. Coughlin was incensed after the play, confronting Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano for needlessly endangering the Giants players when the game was already decided. As is wont in the NFL, the dispute found its way to the media’s ears, leading to a bizarre sort of public trial. The prosecution spoke first, and it spoke loudest.
“I don’t think you do that at this level,” Coughlin said after the game. “You don’t do that in this league. You don’t jeopardize the offensive line, you [don’t] jeopardize the quarterback. Thank goodness we didn’t get anybody hurt, that I know of, a couple of linemen were late coming in [after end of game].”
It is an argument hinging on principle rather than reason. Coach Coughlin is right to be concerned about the health of his players, but he also knows the inherent risks of sending a man onto a football field. If he didn’t want his guys to get hurt, they shouldn’t have been out there. If he doesn’t think there is a risk of injury on every single NFL play, without exception, then he is deluding himself.
Schiano, following his second-ever game as an NFL head coach, spoke much more pragmatically about what transpired.
“I don’t know if that’s not something that’s not done in the National Football League, but what I do with our football team is we fight until they tell us game over,” Schiano said. “There’s nothing dirty about it and there’s nothing illegal about it.”
Maybe so, but the Giants weren’t taking too kindly to the overeager new kid on the block, trying to win a game with time left on the clock. As reporters surveyed the New York locker room, they heard a litany of incredulous, high-horse reactions, none as ignorant as offensive lineman Sean Locklear’s response.
“It’s nothing I’ve ever seen,” Locklear said. “I think it’s a dirty play. When we’re all telling them we’re going down, they’re not gonna get the ball. They’re not gonna get the snap, we’re not gonna fumble the ball. But it’s a play that they did.”
It’s the fumble bit that kills this argument, especially since we’re talking about the Giants. On Nov. 19, 1978, New York was up 17-12 against the Philadelphia Eagles with the clock winding down. Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik botched a handoff to Larry Csonka, the Eagles returned the fumble for a touchdown, and the Giants ended up with one of the most improbable losses in NFL history. “The Miracle at the Meadowlands” is certainly the most infamous play the Giants have ever experienced; to New York fans, it is known only as “The Fumble.”
It’s hard for me to say this as a Giants fan, but Coughlin and his players are simply speaking irrationally. They are talking about a world where an oblong ball is handled cleanly every time and where a game ends before the clock hits zero. I’m with Coach Coughlin in that I don’t want to see any Giants get hurt, but I also don’t want carelessness to lead to another iteration of “The Fumble.” It happened 13 years before I was born, and I’m still not over it.
So, a few final words of advice for the Giants, and for the football folks defending their case: don’t stand on ceremony when there are 300-pound men lined up across from you. If you’re really worried about player injuries, you shouldn’t let guys walk onto a football field with little to no sense of urgency, regardless of the situation. As long as there’s time left in the game, just block, for God’s sake.
From Pee Wee football to the pros, coaches are always chirping that you play until the whistle blows. A principled coach like Coughlin should be more familiar with that mantra.