Ask an NFL player about rule changes designed to make the sport safer—penalties for decapitating defenseless receivers and the like—and he'll tell you that the suits in the league office are ruining football. "I think the safest thing to do is leave the game alone," Ray Lewis said recently. "The game will take care of itself. It always has. … When you adjust so many [rules], sometimes it makes it worse."
What Lewis wants is for the NFL to become a self-policed state, with on-field retribution standing in for penalties, fines, and suspensions. Some of this is tough-guy posturing—this isn't flag football, they're turning us into sissies, etc. But it's also a statement of personal responsibility: a belief that the men on the field are accountable to each other, above all, for their own health and safety.
This was essentially the argument the Giants made after the Bucs crashed their "victory formation" on Sunday. From the Giants' perspective, Eli Manning's kneeldown with five seconds to go signified that the contested portion of the game was over. For Bucs coach Greg Schiano, the game wasn't over until the clock ran out, so he ordered the Tampa Bay defense to cannonball through the line. "I don't think you do that at this level," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. Manning, for his part, called it "a little bit of a cheap shot." He said: "Going down, we are taking a knee, in a friendly way. They are firing off, and it's a way to get someone hurt."
What Manning is saying here is at once ridiculous—the gridiron equivalent of "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here, this is the war room!"—and totally reasonable. Schiano, who's in his first season in Tampa after a long tenure at Rutgers, is a classic example of a coach who preaches that the corrective to losing is a "new attitude." Submarining an opponent's kneeldown is a classic "new attitude" move—an attention-getting display of faux hustle that looks tough but accomplishes nothing.
"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 after the game, pulling off a rare triple negative. And what did the Bucs accomplish by fighting until the game was literally over instead of fundamentally over? Instead of just losing, they managed to lose and make their opponents really angry. New attitude, indeed.
The unwritten rule that the Bucs violated is one that makes a lot of sense: Don't risk injuring yourself or others for no good reason. This is why the starters don't play in preseason, why nobody tries too hard on PAT attempts, why the Pro Bowl is a joke. Football is dangerous enough that there's no sense in hustling yourself into additional knee-wrenching and brain-rattling situations. The players need a code to keep themselves alive.
This is the intersection between pro football and pro wrestling. If two guys from the WWE understand the rules of engagement, they can pummel each other without anyone getting seriously hurt. If one of them doesn't know the routine, someone's getting an elbow to the face. The Bucs, with their college coach who's all about giving it the old college try, went off the script. And now, somebody's going to get hurt.
On Football Night in America, Peter King related something a Giants player had told him: "If the Bucs keep doing this, they're risking getting some cheap shots on their own players and maybe risking further injury." What Schiano will soon learn is that the NFL is a league of grudges and grievances, and the guy who makes the rules on the field is Hammurabi, not Roger Goodell. So, if we're talking eye-for-an-eye justice, a word of caution for Josh Freeman: Kneel at your peril. The game will take care of you soon enough.