With five seconds to go in Sunday's game against the New York Giants, Greg Schiano sent his Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense onto the field at MetLife Stadium one last time with a simple instruction: keep trying to beat the defending Super Bowl champs.
What followed was a play that lasted but a couple of seconds, did not produce a score and had no impact on the outcome of the game, yet seems on course to become the most dissected, derided and debated piece of perfectly fair play of the 2012 NFL season.
Depending on which sports talk show they listened to on Monday, the uninitiated in matters of NFL controversy could be forgiven for thinking that Schiano had committed some grave sporting crime, an offense so at odds with the laws of the game that heavy sanction must surely follow. But rushing the quarterback, whether Eli Manning or anyone else wants to take a knee, is not illegal in football, never has been and, despite the NFL's unquenchable thirst for fattening its bulging code of on-field conduct, probably never will be.
Because while every athletic endeavor beloved in this country has a weighty tome of regulations that maintain its governance, Schiano's call that left Manning on his butt and stoked Tom Coughlin's wizened ire falls into the category of the unwritten rule, a phrase that in itself begs to be uttered in hushed tones.
Unwritten rules (shhh) are sports' equivalent of a homespun tale regaled around a campfire. There is something a little heartwarming about them, given that unwritten rules are adopted over time through on-field tradition by athletes of yesteryear, as opposed to the carefully crafted, over-complicated legalese suits in league offices come up with.
Football doesn't have a whole bunch of unwritten rules, with the NFL's desire to exercise control over all it surveys ensuring that each cough, spit, snap and celebration has its own section of the rule book dedicated to it.
Aside from holding back when the offensive team is taking a knee to close a game, running up the score is the primary unwritten rule in both college and pro football. Teams generally refrain from attempting two-point conversions when it becomes clear they are coasting to victory, and in the closing minutes will run down the clock rather than run up the score.
Basketball sometimes adopts a similar practice in the final possession of lopsided games, though players often attempt late shots and cop no heat for doing so.
Yet that is rarely the case when one of the myriad practices woven into the fabric of baseball's history are interfered with. Baseball is the grand master of the unwritten rule and its phantom codes are lacquered with pride and machismo, no shocker considering anybody with humility and good sense would laugh their invisible ink right off their invisible pages.
Take, for example, perhaps the most enforced of baseball's unwritten rules: Thou shalt not steal bases when in possession of a large lead. Now, this makes absolutely no sense. If a team doesn't want the player running, it has two remedies: a) do not allow the player to get on base and b) do not work up such a big deficit in the first place.
Logic, of course, has no place in baseball, and so last week when 19-year-old Washington outfielder Bryce Harper stole second base with the Nationals up five runs, naturally Cubs pitcher Lendy Castillo felt it necessary to throw a pitch at Harper. Though it missed, the benches cleared and led to 60 grown men square dancing in the middle of a baseball field.
How throwing a 95-mph fastball at somebody's body is not just OK but encouraged shows baseball's backward sense of morality. Look too long at a home run? Get plunked. Run a little too slowly around the bases for the pitcher's liking? Watch out.
Hell, any sort of wrong move, and baseball justice is a seam imprint on the ribs.
The greatest nonsense is reserved for no-hitters. They're potentially historic, a little mystical and, accordingly, certain provisions must be taken. Teammates do not speak to the pitcher unless spoken to and the man with the ball will be ceded a section of the bench after the sixth inning, all his colleagues nervously fearing they could be the one whose conversation jinxes the thing.
And don't dare bunt in an attempt to break up a no-hitter. Even though getting no-hit is a great indignity and a no-hitter-in-progress often is the sign of a pitcher at his unhittable apex, anyone who bunts is a coward, a bush-leaguer and, worst of all, a rule breaker. This is unspeakably stupid, as if another person's performance should dictate how his opponent plays the game, yet it's sacrosanct.
When Erick Aybar, one of baseball's best bunters, tried to lay one down and break up a Justin Verlander no-hitter in the eighth inning, Verlander committed an error, then responded by screaming at Aybar. While his words were difficult to decipher, Verlander's actions gave away what he was saying.
Next time he saw him, he'd hit him.
Other sports have their own antics. Soccer players who think nothing of diving to and writhing on the ground in agony after faux "fouls" will find their conscience bites in immediately to kick the ball out of play if an opponent is down injured, and they'll do so even if the guy is faking it.
David Beckham tried to explain this concept to a confused reporter a few years after arriving in the United States. "It's just what you do, you kick it out and let the play stop," Beckham explained. "It pretty much always happens."
But it's not a rule? "No, definitely not," he said.
Golf, as befitting its more genteel status, is laden with good-natured etiquette, though most of it has found its way into that little green book that the most annoying of course patrons always have in their back pockets.
Walking across the line of a player's putt is frowned upon – with the kind of frown that only the antique chairman of a privileged country club can muster – and is adhered to even by the most inept of hackers. When the United States Ryder Cup team trampled across the line of Europe's Jose Maria Olazabal as they celebrated Justin Leonard's monster putt at Brookline in 1999, it created serious friction between the two sides that carried over on to the PGA Tour and lasted for months.
Hockey, unsurprisingly, has a couple of unwritten rules of its own. Equally unsurprising, the game's exponents seem to take as much delight in flouting the unwritten rules as they do the written ones.
In theory, the goaltender is a protected species, as the most important player on the ice for both teams. Alas, that also makes him a target for aggressive players seeking to take him off his game or, worse, take him out.
It happened twice to Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres last season. Against the Boston Bruins in November 2011, he was run over by Milan Lucic as both players chased a loose puck, causing Miller concussion-like symptoms. The Sabres were slaughtered in the hockey media for not coming to his defense. The next month, in his first game back from injury, Miller was run over by Jordin Tootoo of the Nashville Predators while in his crease. Miller, not one to settle for one punch when two will suffice, responded by jumping Tootoo before his teammates piled on.
There are a slew of rules for hockey fighting, a.k.a. "The Code," chief among them knowing who your dance partner is. If a team's resident goon decides to go after the other team's leading scorer who barely fights traffic let alone opposing players, then said goon will face repercussions from that goal-scorer's own enforcers – either through a fight later in the game or the next time the teams face each other.
So then, the rules are the rules, except for when they're not. And even then, they can still be broken.
Did Schiano really do anything wrong? This column makes no attempt to settle the ruckus that has launched a million Monday rants this week, but it is possible to make the argument that the situation in question made it somewhat more plausible. Even though a positive outcome for the Buccaneers was extraordinarily unlikely, it was not impossible. Agreed, it would have taken a miracle.
But miracles do happen. In fact, they even happen at the same East Rutherford site.
Back in 1978 Herm Edwards – yes, that Herm Edwards – was the beneficiary of the Miracle of the Meadowlands, with the then-Philadelphia Eagles cornerback scooping up a botched snap with seconds remaining and taking it in for a game-winning touchdown.
The Giants offensive line was confused as to whether they were taking a knee or calling a running play, uncertainty caused by … the Eagles having been ordered by coach Dick Vermeil to play to the final whistle.
Food for thought then, at least for a while.
By next weekend the NFL circus will have another act to occupy its airwaves, but until then Schiano will remain a pantomime villain, either a bush-league bonehead who doesn't understand the code of his sport or the victim of fiercely-guarded customs that are outside the rulebook but very much inside the game.
Jeff Passan and Greg Wyshynski contributed to this story.
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