Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.
Four quarters of football weren’t enough to determine the superior team on Sunday night, so the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys played a fifth. As is customary, the extra period began with a coin toss at midfield, in which a captain from the visiting team called “heads” or “tails” and a gleaming disc of fate was tossed in the air. In this case, Eagles safety Chris Maragos called “tails,” the coin fell tails-up, and the Eagles chose to receive the kickoff, naturally. Philadelphia scored in its first possession on a dramatic 41-yard touchdown pass to win the game. It was a straightforward NFL overtime.
But for certain Dallas fans, it wasn’t that simple, as USA Today’s Chris Chase reported Monday morning. The Eagles’ victory extended the Cowboys’ losing streak to six games, the team’s longest stretch of uninterrupted failure since 1989. And perhaps because of that deep misery, some Dallas boosters whipped themselves into a collective delusion that Maragos actually called “heads,” and the Cowboys should have gotten the ball in overtime.
Set aside for a moment that Maragos said “tails”; referee Ed Hochuli said “tails”; Hochuli noted again that “tails is the call”; one of Hochuli’s minions checked with Maragos, who confirmed “tails”; and Hochuli reiterated a second time that “tails is the call.” None of that matters. In the rules of football, the coin toss is by design a mechanism of pure caprice. It’s not meant to be fair—there’s no fair way to award the first possession—it’s meant to be random, which is equally unfair to all parties.
So it doesn’t matter whether Maragos said “heads,” because Ed Hochuli thought the call was “tails,” giving the Eagles the same 50-50 chance they would have had otherwise—no advantage was gained. In truth, the call of the coin is ceremonial, and any series of comical mishaps could precede the flip with no effect. If Maragos said “walnuts,” and Ed Hochuli replied, “I’ll take that as a ‘heads,’” it would be an equally legitimate way to determine possession. The pre-toss machinations are frippery in the eyes of fate. Heads, tails—these are totems to mask the blindness of the choice. In the end, the mortals on the field can only guess. True power lies with the coin, a metallic arbiter of destiny that decides their course.
The Dallas fans who fumed over the Eagles’ supposed chicanery made the mistake of construing a narrative from matters of chance. But this “mistake” is an essential part of storytelling in sports—one of its most entertaining features, in fact. So let Texas’ stubborn contingent of Maragos truthers believe that Dallas deserved to get the ball in overtime. In fairness, the Cowboys deserved it just as much as the Eagles did. That’s why they flipped a coin.
Hiccups during the coin toss are nothing new for Ed Hochuli, who’s in his 24th season as an NFL referee. When a Lions-Eagles game late in 2013 began in blizzard conditions, the all-powerful maester of the penalty flag assessed the meteorology of the moment and made an unorthodox warning: “If it lands on an angle,” he said, referring to the coin, “I will flip it again.” Even with piles of snow on the turf, few football officials would feel the need to consider the contingency of the coin landing on its side, but Hochuli thought ahead. And then, crazily enough, it actually did land on its side, so the iron ref tossed it a second time as promised. Thanks to his prescient warning, confusion and hurt feelings were avoided. Hochuli’s handling of the situation exhibited the same grace with which he might pull a logging truck up a steep incline, using only his teeth. It was a real smooth move.
But then again, there was the time this January when the Arizona Cardinals won the opening toss in a wild-card playoff game against the Carolina Panthers and old Jackhammer Ed decided he would award the option to Carolina despite what the coin had decreed. A Cardinals player had to intervene to keep Hochuli from recklessly molesting the Integrity Of The Game. That was a coin toss boner, albeit one so mighty that it requires a police escort to navigate side streets.
Beyond the realm of coin tosses, the more meaningful, less lighthearted scandal to emanate from Dallas this week centered on Greg Hardy. The Cowboys defensive end served a four-game suspension to begin this season after assaulting an ex-girlfriend in 2014. (Hardy was convicted of the assault, but the charges were dropped on appeal after the victim failed to appear for further testimony.) Hardy’s violent behavior was already public knowledge in general terms, but new reports in Deadspin exposed the details of the incident and revealed the toothless quasijudicial process by which the NFL reinstated Hardy after he had been deactivated for the 2014 season. The vivid ugliness laid bare by Deadspin’s reporting prompted sportswriters and TV pundits to unleash a renewed wave of scorn at Hardy.
You’d think league executives would be alarmed that a widely despised player was making a mockery of their anti-domestic-violence PR campaign. Yet if they’re upset, they’re being quiet about it, as NFL officials have had little to say on the new Hardy developments. Perhaps commissioner Roger Goodell feels that he has already done his best to address the problem: When he allowed Hardy back into the league, he also punished the player with a 10-game suspension. That’s gigantic by NFL standards and was intended to send the message that Goodell was being “tough” on those who abuse women. An arbitrator later cut the furlough to four games, but Goodell’s point had been made.
Therein lies the trouble with the league office getting “tough” on domestic violence offenders: Toughness is just a self-serving way to avoid responsibility. As the commissioner’s office positioned itself as a rival to the villainous Hardy, it also placed a convenient distance between top NFL decision-makers and that unsavory fellow in Dallas. By coming down hard on Hardy (or, more accurately, by creating the appearance that he did so), Goodell apparently gets to say, “Hey, I tried!” and throw up his hands in exasperation with the rest of us.
It’s easy to put up a macho front. The hard thing would be for the league to take responsibility for Hardy—to treat him as a member of the tight-knit community that the NFL so often claims to be. “Football is family,” goes this year’s promotional mantra. A decent family would atone for its role in Hardy’s crimes and work to rehabilitate him. It would provide aid to those he had harmed. The league doesn’t expend these efforts because it fears being held accountable for a player’s bad acts. But the longer an unrepentant Hardy stays on the field, the more clearly you can see the cowardice behind the NFL’s tough-guy act.
The Block & Tackle prediction: Tampa Bay 19, Dallas 17.
No referee is more associated with the perils of the coin toss than Phil Luckett, who presided over an overtime toss that went so awry, it resulted in a rule change. In a tied Thanksgiving Day game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Detroit Lions, Luckett flipped the coin and had Pittsburgh captain Jerome Bettis call it in the air. Bettis seemed to say “tails,” but Luckett said that the call was “heads.” The coin came up tails, and Detroit kicked a field goal to win in sudden death.
Later analysis of the broadcast audio revealed that Bettis had started to say “heads” before quickly changing his mind, and Luckett stayed with what he perceived to be Bettis’ first choice. A nation of pundits nonetheless declared this a laughable boner, but as Referee magazine explained in a detailed investigation, Luckett’s actions were proper under the NFL rules at the time. It was actually a smooth move. Still, in the wake of the incident the league revised its coin toss procedure to require a clear call from the visiting team before the flip—rather than while the coin is in the air.
This rule change indirectly led to a near-snafu during the Super Bowl XLVIII coin toss in 2014. Referee Terry McAulay handed the coin to Jets legend Joe Namath so that Namath could perform the solemn ceremony of hurling this shiny item into the air. The Super Bowl III champion quarterback promptly flipped the coin without asking for a call first—as it would have been done during his playing days—and a startled Terry McAulay snatched the disc from midair before it could hit the ground.
This was the smoothest move in coin toss history, and the best part of the move was the dumb “What just happened?” smile that lingered on McAulay’s face for a split second as he squeezed the improperly hurled coin between his palms. I like to imagine that in this moment, McAulay was suddenly aware of the ridiculous tableau on our TV screens. Here he was, a grown man in a garish striped shirt that would be laughable in any other context except “impresario of a Key West piano bar,” standing next to a folk hero in a fur coat that could be described the same way. McAulay had been forced to take action because a metal circle was lofted into the air before a beefy man could make a wild guess about how the circle would land. At that moment, McAulay seemed to perceive how silly this ritual was. Then he collected himself and began the process anew, for you cannot play football without first paying tribute to the glimmering disc of fate.
The Vikings’ official website has a recurring game show feature called “Words With Teammates.” The game is an unabashed ripoff of The $25,000 Pyramid, which is confusing because given the title, you’d be expecting a ripoff of Words With Friends, which itself is a ripoff of Scrabble. Instead, each installment of “Words With Teammates” features two Vikings players trying to describe words to each other, which is more fun than it sounds, as the teammates’ clues and responses provide tiny glimpses into their personalities and locker room culture. Take the episode with wide receivers Jarius Wright and Cordarrelle Patterson, which offers astounding feats of telepathy…
Wright (describing “referees”): We have ’em in football.
Patterson (describing “Laffy Taffy”): Girl, shake that…
Wright: Laffy Taffy.
…and telling displays of team spirit:
Wright (describing “Viktor”): He’s our mascot. We always dap him up whenever we come in.
Patterson: Uhhhh—skip that one.
Other recommended episodes include one where defensive tackle Linval Joseph describes “false start” by saying, “Our teammates get this a lot—all the time” and a kicking-specialist special in which punter Jeff Locke does his impression of a TV stage director’s silent countdown:
If football prowess can be gauged by how adorable the players are when they participate in classic game show formats, then the Vikings are sure to win on Sunday. The Block & Tackle prediction: Oakland 27, Minnesota 14.
In an effort to draw viewers to the mostly dismal late-season Thursday games on NFL Network, the league is enticing America with the promise of pretty colors. Until now, standard practice has been for one team to play in colored jerseys (usually but not always the home team) while the opponents wear white tops. But Thursday matchups for the rest of the season will be part of a “Color Rush” promotion in which both sides wear a team color from head to toe. Last night’s debut of the Color Rush featured the Buffalo Bills in red against the New York Jets in green—or, if you’re colorblind, the Guys against The Other Guys Who Look Exactly The Same.
As word spread on social media that the game was a nigh-unwatchable mess for the chromatically impaired, I reached out to my colleague (and Polite Fight costar) Gus Spelman to get his take. He’s colorblind, although I vaguely recalled that he wasn’t the “normal” kind of colorblind but is a rather more exotic creature, which he confirmed in our text-message chat, transcribed here:
John: Hey Gus, are you around? Can you tell the difference between the colors of uniforms in this photo?
Gus: Yeah, they’re close, but I can tell. Although that red looks close to orange to me. [To me, too. —Ed.]
John: Are you red-green colorblind or something different?
Gus: Well, there’s three kinds. The most common is just red-green, [and people who have that one are called] deuteranopes. The less common is red-greenish and blue-greenish, protanopes. Which is the kind I am. And then the least common are tritanopes.
John: Ooh, rare.
Gus: I don’t know as much about that one. I think they’re blue-yellow. But anyway, those outfits are “closer” for me than for you probably, but not as close as for most colorblind people. [I love that he called them “outfits.” —Ed.]
John: Thanks for educating me. People have been going nuts over this colorblind thing all night.
Gus: Haha, why are people so into it?
John: This is the first time [in the modern era] that the league has allowed two teams to wear their color uniforms (as opposed to one team wearing white unis).
John: And they happened to choose red and green, and it was something of a disaster because all these people couldn’t tell what was going on.
Gus: That’s so great. Well, anyway, when people are trying to understand what it would be like to be colorblind, I tell them to just remember what it was like looking at the blue-black/white-gold dress. Not being quite sure what you’re seeing—not as intense as that, of course.
Next week’s “Color Rush” uniform sets for the Titans and Jaguars would seem to create a problem for tritanopes, the “blue-yellow” colorblind people who Gus mentioned. But tritanopes can generally distinguish blue from yellow just fine—they just tend to confuse those two hues with other colors. In the case of the Jaguars’ uniforms, that confusion will be a welcome respite.
Here are Block & Tackle’s final score predictions for the rest of the Week 10 slate. All Block & Tackle predictions are guaranteed to be correct. If there is a discrepancy between a prediction and an actual football game, the football game is wrong.
Buffalo Bills vs. New York Jets (last night, 8:25 p.m., NFL Network): New York 21, Buffalo 15. You should never judge a team by a Thursday night game, or at least that’s what the New York Jets are telling themselves right now. The terrible, rotten New York Jets.
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Baltimore Ravens (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Jacksonville meow, Baltimore caw. The Jaguars-Ravens game is the latest contest to feature birds against cats, a gridiron tribute to one of nature’s most enduring rivalries. Over the last 10 birds-vs.-cats matchups in the NFL, teams named after cats have accrued a 6-4 record.
Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Pittsburgh 32, Cleveland 18. Contrary to popular belief, the Cleveland Browns are not named for the brown color of their jerseys, but rather for the orange color of their helmets.
Chicago Bears vs. St. Louis Rams (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): St. Louis 15, Chicago 14.
Miami Dolphins vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Miami 25, Philadelphia 23.
New Orleans Saints vs. Washington (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): New Orleans 37, Washington 17.
Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Green Bay 28, Detroit 21. The Lions always look great in practice, because they get to play against the Lions.
Dallas Cowboys vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Tampa Bay 19, Dallas 17.
Carolina Panthers vs. Tennessee Titans (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Carolina 23, Tennessee 12.
New England Patriots vs. New York Giants (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): New England 31, New York 21. Quiz: Which one of these New England Patriots helmets is the smelliest? Quiz answer: The second one, which smells like a cat puked in it.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Denver Broncos (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., CBS): Denver 2, Kansas City 0.
Arizona Cardinals vs. Seattle Seahawks (Sunday, 8:30 p.m., NBC): Seattle 23, Arizona 20.
Houston Texans vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN): Cincinnati 35, Houston 13.
Teams on bye: Atlanta, Indianapolis, San Diego, San Francisco
Block & Tackle prediction record for 2015 season: 133-0
Erroneous football games played last week: 9
Erroneous football games played overall in 2015: 48