SEATTLE, Wash. -- You can see it in many NFL Films highlights of Dick Butkus, the original Monster of the Midway, when he patrolled the middle of Chicago's defense from 1965 through 1973. Just before the snap of the ball, and just before he took off to crush another poor quarterback, Butkus would loudly grunt out something that sounded a lot like "Hut!" Yep, just like a quarterback says as he's demanding the ball from under center or in the shotgun.
Former Seattle Seahawks pass rusher Rufus Porter had a particular "twitch" with his arm he would do to bring offensive lines out of their comfort zones. He'd get warned by the officials, and occasionally penalized, but the benefits of that little jump off the ball outweighed any possible officiating repercussions. And as CBS Sports' Mike Freeman wrote Wednesday morning, Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle used to do all kinds of things to upset the line and throw off the quarterback from a verbal perspective.
What would the motive be for such nefarious tactics? Ask Dallas Cowboys center Phil Costa, who blamed his four errant snaps last Monday in a 18-16 win over the Washington Redskins on the opposing defense's tendency to bark out what sounded like a final snap count just before the ball left the center's hand.
"We've got to get the snap thing worked out," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said after the Monday night game. "Costa said the D-line kept calling out the snap count. We'll get that worked out. We'll tell the league and see if that's something that can be fixed because you're not supposed to be able to do that. So we'll see. But we can't have that happen. We shouldn't have been in that situation."
And that's exactly the case. Costa later said that it was on him to figure it out, but putting that out in the media in the first place makes Costa look like a guy who's just deflecting blame for a very bad day.
Redskins linebacker Stephen Bowen denied the allegations outright on Wednesday. "Honestly, I don't understand how I could simulate his snap count. Am I supposed to memorize the colors and the numbers he was saying? Honestly, I lost a lot of respect for Costa. If that was the case, then why didn't any of their offensive linemen jump offside? It makes no sense, because he's lying. Just be a man and stand by your word. Everybody respects a man that tells the truth."
Two current head coaches who spent time as defensive coordinators — Atlanta's Mike Smith and Seattle's Pete Carroll — each told me on Wednesday that while this tactic might be somewhat prevalent (certainly it happens often enough for more experienced centers to adjust), it's not nearly the big deal it's now made out to be.
"Everybody is trying to get an advantage, each and every week," Smith said. "It's so competitive in this league because the ability level across the board is very similar. When you look at these 32 teams, the ability level is the same. It's being able to sustain it and people look for every edge that they can get to sustain and have the same ability of the level of play that they need to have. I think it's part of gamesmanship. It's just part of the game. It always has been and it always will be."
Carroll cited the NFL's switch from having the umpire on the defensive side of the ball to the offensive backfield, a change that was made before the 2010 season, as possible motivation for teams to think they might pull a fast one. "There's a small percentage of time where that may be a factor. Moving the umpire is part of that availability, he's deeper and farther away and that may make it a little more available for some teams that would decide to do something like that. I don't know."
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan also said that there's not generally much to it. "You see a little bit of it to try and get guys to jump and do those types of things. For us, offensively, it comes down to being all on the same page and that's what you work so hard on during the week, that's what you prepare so hard on during the week that regardless of what they do you're ready to roll. But you do see it from time to time."
As Sports Illustrated's Peter King told me on Wednesday, this could have just as easily been a case of a defense getting over on a young player. "If you're a kid, and you haven't played very much in the NFL, and maybe this is the first time you've ever heard this happen … maybe when confronted with reporters after a game when you've maybe talked to nine reporters in your life … when people come to you after the game and ask what happened, you have a tendency to be honest, and say exactly what happened.
"When I heard Costa say that, there was no doubt in my mind that he felt that way — that he felt that he got robbed, in essence. That he got played with. And I'm sure that if you're London Fletcher, or whoever did that for Washington … you know what [defensive coordinator] Jim Haslett is saying to you before the game? He's saying, 'Hey — inexperienced center, they've had some problems at the position, this is a new guy, let's test him out.'"
So … we don't know how often it happens, but it most likely happens a lot more to a Phil Costa than to a Olin Kreutz, a Matt Birk, or to any other center in the league for over a decade. King also pointed out that in national games like the one featuring the Cowboys and Redskins, the center is miked, which would make any snap count violations more obvious. Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan also brought this up on Wednesday.
"And when the center is miked, you go back in audio and see if one of our players did say a snap count, and they did not," Shanahan said.
Much ado about nothing, but at least it keeps us from talking about players flopping for a while…