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Tuesday, 18 September 2012

I've got a bad kneeling about this... - Schiano's dick move and why it was the right call

There was no shortage of topics for debate that emerged from the Giants’ win over the Buccaneers on Sunday. There was the complete Jekyll-and-Hyde performance from Eli Manning, whose three first-half interceptions – all of which led either directly or indirectly to touchdowns – should have put the game out of reach for Big Blue, before throwing for as many yards in the fourth quarter (243) as his pewter-clad counterpart had done all game. There was the total collapse on both sides of the ball for Tampa Bay in the second half, from an offense that failed to hit any sort of groove whatsoever at halftime to a defense that, in part due to the 79 snaps they faced, began to wear out against the run while they were abused all day through the air.  There were blatant penalties on both sides that could have had a significant effect on the game – from an unquestionable hit to the head of a defenceless Vincent Jackson (which, by not being called, put the Bucs in 2nd & 10, leading to Freeman’s first interception on a play call that likely would not have been called had Kenny Phillips been correctly flagged), to countless hold by DBs on Giants’ receivers (the biggest, though not only, offender being Aqib Talib, who appeared to be constantly holding Hakeem Nicks) that could have made the game much less close than it ended up being.
But despite all that, the one thing from the game that has sparked fierce debate across both sports journalists and football fans is a play that, ordinarily, is completely innocuous – the QB Kneel.

A brief history lesson:

Sunday, November 19th, 1978. The New York Giants were playing a home game against divisional rivals the Philadelphia Eagles. Late in the fourth quarter, the home team were up 17-12, with less than 30 seconds on the clock. All that was required was for quarterback Joe Pisarcik to kneel the ball, as, with the Eagles having no timeouts left, advancing the clock would have ended the game. However, Pisarcik had kneeled the ball a play earlier, only to be knocked down when Eagles' linebacker Bill Bergey knocked center Jim Clack backwards. So, offensive co-ordinator Bob Gibson instead called for Pisarcik to hand the ball to legendary fullback Larry Csonka. The play unfolded as follows:

It would be the last play call Bob Gibson ever made in the NFL.

Fast-forward to last Sunday. The Giants were leading the Bucs 41-34 with five second on the clock, and had possession of the ball at their own 30-yard line. The Giants lined up in what is now known as the "victory formation", Eli Manning took the snap from David Baas, and as he went to kneel, was taken by surprise as the Tampa Bay defense surged into the offensive line, pushing blockers back into the quarterback and knocking Manning down.

In his post-game press conference, Manning said the move was "kind of a cheap shot". Giants' head coach Tom Coughlin said point blank "I don't think you do that at this level, you don't do that in this league". The latter might be true - teams do not attack victory formations in the pros. But a cheap shot? That I disagree with strongly.

There is, I feel, a distinction to be made between a 'cheap shot', and what I would term, and pardon the vulgarity, a 'dick move'. A cheap shot is something that is outside the rules of the game, relatively minor in the grand scheme of things - it's hardly Spygate or Bountygate - but which none the less is illegal according the rulebook. Any lineman will tell you that these cheap shots occur on every snap in the trenches - a quick jab to the ribs under the pads, a thumb shoved into the eye, knees aimed for and, yes, crotches punched; they occur all over the field, a CB slapping a receiver's helmet after the whistle to irk him, the running back who delivers a chop to the neck of a defensive player at the bottom of a pile scrambling for a fumble. These are parts of the reality of playing football that have always been, and will always be, part of the game. All illegal, all cheapshots, all accepted as part of the sport.

Then there is your dick moves. These do not break the rules of football, they are not often flagable, and there is nothing technically wrong in attempting such a move; but nonetheless, doing so is often seen as flying in the face of established custom and 'good form'. Kneeling down is widely accepted as an uncontested play, and to contest it would be breaking an "unwritten rule" - not words which Coughlin actually used when talking about Schiano's decision, but which were very strongly implied.

Schiano broke from widely-accepted practice by breaking this unwritten rule. Doing so is a dick move, as it shows a disregard for the established norms of the game, and I simply don't believe anyone can deny the dickishness of deliberately defying a socially-held custom.

I do believe, however, that it needs to be followed up with this question: so what?

Now, full disclosure: I went back and forth as to whether I supported or disagreed with the call for hours after, but I've decided there's no question Schiano was fully justified. Anyone who has any problem with Schiano's call should scroll back up a few paragraphs and re-read the circumstances surrounding the Miracle at the Meadowlands: the play before the Pisarcik fumble, Big Blue went for a QB kneel and the quarterback was knocked down. Just like Manning was.

That famous play in '78 led to a complete re-evaluation of the QB Kneel as a legitimate end-of-game tactic. The Giants had shown the world the riskiness of not using the play, and even the traditionalists accepted it had a place in football. The very next week, both the Giants and the Eagles debuted a new offensive formation - the "victory formation". Now, perhaps Tom Coughlin got confused in his old age and assumed that the formation's name arose because it's meant to guarantee the winning team a victory. It is not.

The formation was developed for a very specific single purpose - to protect the quarterback as he tries to kneel from a defense attempting to cause a fumble. Now, the formation has become so widespread because of how successful it has been at executing its lone objective, and the effectiveness of the play has, over time, caused defenses to not even attempt to cause the fumble, the quarterback is so well-protected. Even if the QB does fumble, the formation has two players, typically running backs, standing just behind him to recover a potential loose ball in order to ensure the victory. Nonetheless, the play was developed to protect the quarterback as he tries to kneel from a defense attempting to cause a fumble.

It's not a hard concept to understand, and those who argue Schiano's call was wrong either cannot grasp this simple concept, or believe that "gentlemen's agreements" should take precedence over the rules. They believe that the defense should merely give up on the game when the offense lines up in victory formation, because the odds of the defense actually recovering the ball is infinitesimal, and since as a generality defenses long ago stopped trying, the offensive players don't really attempt to block the defense so it could have caused injury to Manning or one of his blockers.

Apparently, it is Schiano's fault that Coughlin did not tell his team that the clock runs to a full 60 minutes. The offensive line didn't think they had to block, so they weren't ready to protect Eli - should Schiano have gotten his players to give the Giants a heads up? Maybe the Packers' special team unit should have warned Chicago last Thursday night that they were going to attempt a fake field goal? Did Sean Payton break an "unwritten rule" when he began the second half of Super Bowl XLIV with a surprise onside kick?

If you are lining up in the victory formation, you are doing so for one reason and one reason only - to protect the quarterback as he attempts to kneel from a defense attempting to cause a fumble. Arguing that they should be uncontested is like arguing that PATs should be uncontested, due to how small the odds are of the defense actually being able to block the kick. PATs are not automatic - nor should kneel downs be. Schiano has caused fumbles on kneel downs before, while head coach at Rutgers. Here's Oklahoma State fumbling a ball on kneel down, recovered by Troy. Of course, the NFL is different from college, with a different set of norms and different limits on acceptability, but if kneel downs were completely uncontested, as Coughlin suggests that they should be, would the Chiefs have recovered this Philip Rivers' fumble on a kneel down, winning the game by doing so? There is no guarantees that, even if the Bucs had caused Manning to fumble, they A) would have been the team to recover the fumble or B) there would have been enough time left on the clock for Josh Freeman to throw a Hail Mary pass to tie up the game. But, on the very minute chance that the Bucs, trailing by a single score, had caused a fumble, recovered it, and had enough time left on the clock for Freeman to score a TD from only 30 yards out, should a team really give up on the game?

An unwritten rule is nothing but mere convention. In an age of unconventional offenses, maybe it's time that a few more defenses began re-evaluating just how strictly they should be following these 'unwritten rules'.

"And next time, you better not pick off Eli again. That's an unwritten
rule too. You don't do that in this league, boy."

- Gur "Fred" Samuel (@FredTheGur)
- The Pulling Linemen


  1. I'm all for bad puns but come on man that title is fecking as bad as it gets!

    I wouldn't even say it's a dick move really, you're entitled to do it, you don't have to but you should always have the option. The kneel down is something that bugs me when any team does it. One team deciding the game is over really ruins it as a contest and I hate to see that happen.

    Great piece will share it on twitter and other spots. Forgot to tell the TPL boys about using your OLR in another of our preview articles last week. Sorry about that.

  2. Title pun is awesome.
    Interesting article, it'll be interesting to see if other teams around the league try this (unlikely) or make sure they are prepared for it (very likely).