Is there still a "code" in the NFL?

Doug Farrar
November 20, 2009

For his new book, "The Code", Ross Bernstein talked to dozens of current and former NFL players and coaches about the unwritten rules that have held the game together for decades. I've been reading and enjoying the book since I bought it. One play this season made me wonder if the gentrification of pro football has suppressed or eliminated the "eye-for-an-eye" factor. When Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett(notes) pressed his elbow into Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's(notes) throat after Hasselbeck was down on a sack, the only guy who had Hasselbeck's back was head coach Jim Mora -- and that was a day after the game. Dockett wasn't penalized on the play.

"I don't like when it's our quarterback, but if they're not going to call it then I'd like to see our guys do it to their quarterback," Mora said at his Monday press conference, in revealing that he'd sent 17 plays to the NFL's head office for review. "If they're not going to call it. I don't know what the rule is. I haven't heard back yet, so I don't know what they're seeing there. But if that's not going to be called, then we should be doing it."

People have criticized Mora for going public with his complaints, and perhaps rightly so. But who else was standing up for Hasselbeck? Nobody on the field with him. According to current Ravens and former Vikings center Matt Birk(notes), that's not how it's supposed to be done. From the book:

The code to me is all about not taking unnecessary cheap shots or playing dirty. When a player is in a vulnerable, susceptible position, our code says that you have to back off. Sure, you can hit a guy hard, but you can't intentionally try to hurt or injure him. If you do, that is when you will get retaliated against ... if a guy plays dirty or does something that violates the code, we see it and make a note of it for the next time we play them.

Nobody wants more injuries. But with increased focus on what the league deems as unnecessary roughness, and Roger Goodell's insistence on a family-friendly game, is there room for "the code" anymore? Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson(notes), also interviewed for the book, took the concept a step further by calling it "a moral code". But in the battle of the players' morals and the league's ethics, reality will trump old-school justice in the long run if that's the way the NFL wants it. If that's the way the NFL wants it, Step One has to do with throwing that flag and having officials observant enough to see what's going on. And if the refs don't do their jobs, the league can't blame the players for stepping back in.