John McGrath

Kneeling down isn’t in the spirit of football. Here’s a better way to end a close NFL game

Because Philadelphia Eagles' Herman Edwards, left, recovered a fumble by New York Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik and then scored, team’s have opted to use a victory formation instead of traditional plays.
Because Philadelphia Eagles' Herman Edwards, left, recovered a fumble by New York Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik and then scored, team’s have opted to use a victory formation instead of traditional plays. AP

Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett has been cleared to participate in what amounts to an NFC West playoff game Sunday against the Rams. If the Hawks prevail, coach Pete Carroll should send a thank-you card addressed to the commissioner’s office.

Bennett’s attempt last week to disrupt a kneel-down – he went low on the Jaguars’ Brandon Linder, putting the center’s knees at risk, and then barreled into Linder again, after the whistle – instigated a brawl that turned into a public disturbance involving some lathered-up Jaguars fans who’ll never be asked to bring the potato salad to the Mensa picnic.

Bennett’s misconduct clearly was worthy of suspension, although I’m not sure how that process works. Is anybody?

Still, it’s easy to understand the source of Bennett’s frustration: He’s a football player who wasn’t supposed to make a football play. Per the “gentleman’s agreement” terms of the victory formation, the defensive team is expected to avoid hard contact as the quarterback takes a knee while the clock winds down. He who initiates hard contact, as Bennett did, is seen as a sore-losing lout.

I’m not trying to excuse the behavior of a ninth-year NFL veteran, especially after reporters gave him an opportunity to justify his actions in the locker room. He declined.

And yet I get it. One moment, with the outcome still in doubt, he was exerting maximum effort. A few seconds later, he lined up for the first of two plays that discourage maximum effort.

The NFL’s Competition Committee, which annually tweaks the league’s rulebook, needs to remember the origins of the kneel-down. The tactic became universal, 39 years ago, to save coaches from embarrassment. Preventing injuries had nothing to do with it.

On Nov. 19, 1978, the Giants were 36 seconds away from beating visiting Philadelphia. Because the Eagles were out of time outs, all Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik needed to do was hold onto the ball.

But Pisarcik botched the exchange on a routine handoff to running back Larry Csonka, the ball was free, and Philadelphia cornerback Herm Edwards scooped it up for the 28-yard touchdown that gave the Eagles a 19-17 victory: “The Miracle at the Meadowlands.”

The ramifications of the fumble literally were realized overnight. Giants offensive coordinator Bob Gibson, who called the play, lost his job the next morning. Gibson moved to Florida and found work in a bait shop. His divorce from football was swift and permanent.

By the following week, every head coach in the NFL developed a victory formation. Under their watch, there would be no last-minute miracles, no chance for a defense, on the short end of a 17-12 score and absent any time outs, to do little else but stand still.

Pro games are 60 minutes in duration, but the victory formation can turn as many as last two of those 60 minutes into a “ha-ha, we’ve got the ball and you’re not getting it back” exercise.

Baseball requires teams with substantial ninth-inning leads to retire a 27th batter. Basketball and hockey games are played until the clock expires. But in football, last minute competition often devolves from full-tilt mayhem to don’t-even-think-about-trying.

There’s got to be a way of ensuring that competitive 60-minute games always are competitive 60-minute games, rather than 58-minute games tethered to a gentleman’s agreement at the end.

Here’s one way: Any quarterback who takes a knee after the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter faces the same penalty as a quarterback who intentionally throws the ball away to avoid a sack. In other words, force the offense to execute fundamental football, which means a clean snap, holding onto the ball, and surging forward until there’s either contact or the ball carrier clears the scrimmage line, at which point he’d have the freedom to slide out of harm’s way.

As for those coaches wary of a fumbled hand-off? Simple. Don’t hand off the ball. For those coaches wary of the starting quarterback sustaining an injury? Also simple. Give the backup QB a truly meaningful snap.

These rules could be implemented with an acknowledgment of what’s reasonable. If the offense has possession during the last minute of a blowout, allow the quarterback to take a knee. Hail to the victors in that formation.

But if the offense has possession during the last minute of a game with a one-score margin, demand that it line up with an actual play in mind. Demand that it record the equivalent of a 27th out.

Since Nov. 19, 1978, it has been a football tradition for the most important player on the winning team to kneel before anybody on the losing team can put a hand on him.

There are many appropriate places to kneel on Sundays. An NFL field isn’t one of them.

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