Times change. Does sportsmanship? Does the code of the warrior on the playing field, or the sportswriter pondering the combat from the Olympian aerie of the press box?
Perhaps. Here’s evidence that attendance is dwindling at sports’ Old School.
At the end of the 1998 Super Bowl, Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren attempted a ploy so radical even experts misunderstood what they were seeing. With under two minutes to play and the score tied, Denver drove to the Packers’ two-yard line. On second down, Broncos’ tailback Terrell Davis trotted into the end zone untouched. Green Bay then took the kickoff and charged deep into Denver territory before losing the ball on downs.
Holmgren had decided to let Denver score while his team had enough time left to do something about it, the alternative being to watch the Broncos run the clock down to a second or two and then kick a chip-shot field goal that would win the game.
Once they understood that Holmgren had actually told his defense to lie down, writers were apoplectic. In the Sun-Times, Rick Telander denounced the coach’s situation ethics. “It undermines the integrity of the sport itself,” Telander wrote. “So unbelievable was it that a coach in the biggest pro game of the year . . . in an environment saturated with gambling fears and gambling realities, actually would ask his players to quit trying that not one of the myriad TV commentators picked up on the fraud. . . . Some things are just unbelievable.”
The Tribune‘s Bernie Lincicome railed against “the essential dishonesty, the basic fraud of the thing. Every yard in a football game is under dispute, every inch is to be won. Otherwise this might as well be soccer or lawn croquet.”
That was then.
Last Sunday San Francisco let the clock run down and then Robbie Gould kicked a chip-shot field goal in the final seconds to beat the Bears 15-14. Pundits writing in Wednesday’s Tribune were outraged that Bears coach John Fox let it happen. It was further evidence—as if any were needed—that Fox must be cashiered.
“Fox never will concede the Bears would have been better off Sunday letting the 49ers score from the 4-yard line with 1 minute, 40 seconds left and leading 14-12,” David Haugh wrote. “Fox’s decision inexplicably showed more faith in his defense’s chances of blocking a chip-shot field goal . . . than in [quarterback Mitchell] Trubisky’s ability to lead a game-winning drive.”
Haugh did allow that letting the other team score “is contrary to every football player’s instinct,” but there are times when “it makes sense as a last resort” and Sunday was one of those times. If back in 1998 honesty and integrity stood in the way, these have by now been reduced to mere “instinct,” as annoying an impediment to advanced thinking as lack of imagination.
Steve Rosenbloom wrote that Fox’s explanation after the game for playing goal-line defense was the “dumbest” thing he’s ever said. “We felt good about the block we had for a potential field goal,” Fox offered, and Rosenbloom argued that this was completely ridiculous, given that the Bears had blocked only one field goal attempt all season and that the only goal of this misbegotten season is to give Trubisky experience in critical situations.
I disagreed with Telander and Lincicome when I wrote about the ’98 Super Bowl, in large part because strategic retreat is a vital and shameless part of any war. I thought their values were squatting on their judgment.
I’ve evolved. Now that pundits are clamoring for the heads of football coaches too thick to put in a matador defense, I’m thinking about what it will do to the game if this defense further advances from radical yet respectable to conventional wisdom. There is, after all, an obvious counterstrategy.
The team being allowed to score chooses not to score. Instead of plunging through a line that mysteriously fails to put a hand on him, the running back takes a knee at the one-yard line. On the next play a burly defensive tackle grabs Davis by the face mask and drags him over the goal line. Flags fly. The offense takes the penalty instead of the touchdown as Davis is carried off the field on a litter. The other coach screams that it’s illegal to turn down a touchdown. A melee ensues.
It’s not fraud. But it’s farce.