“Professional football in America is a special game, a unique game, played nowhere else on Earth. It is a rare game. The men who play it make it so.”
— John Facenda, speaking the words of Steve Sabol.
* * *
Professional football is indeed a unique game, and a rare game, but I’m not sure that the men who play it make it so. It could be the officials. That’s what the insane, ugly, vicious and, yes, captivating game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday night showed. The players dance on the edge of madness. The officials sort it out best they can. They then tell us what happened.
Understand: I’m not complaining about officiating, even if it might sound that way. This is about the sport. Pro football has long been impossible to officiate. You have 11 people doing all sorts of brutal and illegal things to 11 other people and vice versa. A few men armed only with whistles, yellow flags, and a chain link are asked to make sense of it all. The extraordinary part is that football has as much order and lawfulness as it does.
The story of the Steelers-Bengals game, as we will tell it forever, is as follows: You had two teams that utterly despise each other, Jets-Sharks style. All week, the NFL warned those two teams to be cool, but they could not. The players, the cities, the fans detest each other too much. The game had seven personal foul penalties, a dozen nasty injuries, several near fights and a few flying plastic water bottles. The Steelers took a big lead. The Bengals somehow came back. The Steelers turned the ball over with a 97 seconds left. The Bengals then fumbled it back.
Then Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger reentered the game though his arm was dangling by some fishing wire, and he obviously had been injected with the most powerful pain medications known to man. Then Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict helmet-assaulted Pittsburgh’s wide receiver Antonio Brown, even though Roethlisberger’s pass wasn’t close to being caught. Then Cincinnati’s Adam Jones drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty for being unsportsmanlike. Then Pittsburgh kicked the game-winning field goal and made a dash out of town with a playoff victory.
That’s how the story will be told, and the fallout could be considerable. Will Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis — the second-longest tenured coach in football — get fired for his team’s implosion? Will Vontaze Burfict get suspended or banned or arrested? Will Adam Jones make another video ranting at the referees and life in general? Will the ghost of Ben Roethlisberger go back out next week, Monty Python Black Knight style and shout at the Denver Broncos “None shall pass!”
This story is based almost entirely on how officials called the game in the furious live moments.
Look: Late in the third quarter, with Pittsburgh up by 15 and the Bengals having driven into field-goal territory, Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard caught a short pass, turned up field, and was smashed by a helmet-first hit from Pittsburgh’s Ryan Shazier. It was, in the words of CBS’ referee expert Mike Carey, “an unfortunate hit.” He kept using that word, “unfortunate,” which was unfortunate. He seemed unwilling to call it an illegal hit, even though there was no doubt about that. The rule is quite clear or at least as clear as football rules ever get:
Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8: “It is a foul if a runner or tackler initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the top/crown of his helmet against an opponent when both are clearly outside the tackle box.”
This is what Shazier did. The top-of-the-helmet hit was apparent at the moment. It was clearer as the horrifying replay looped again and again while Bernard was motionless on the grass. But the referees did not call it an illegal hit for whatever reason.
Then it was gothic. Brazen Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, realizing that the referees were going to call Shazier’s hit legitimate (but unfortunate), threw the red flag to determine if Bernard fumbled on the play. He did. Unconscious people often do. Shazier picked up the ball. The cynical truth is that if Shazier’s hit was clean as officials decided, then it should have been called a Pittsburgh touchdown because Shazier ran untouched to the end zone.
Instead, they just gave the ball to Pittsburgh at the spot of the recovery because … just because.
Was Shazier’s hit as egregious and shocking and vicious as Burfict’s later hit on Brown? No, but I guess my answer would be: Who cares? As former film critic Patrick Taggart once said when asked to compare two terrible movies, “distinctions at this level are meaningless.” Both hits were ruthless and dangerous, and both were obvious penalties. The officials called one of them but not the other.
Because the game is impossible to officiate.
At the end, when Adam Jones got his unsportsmanlike penalty — the one that put Pittsburgh in field goal range — he was baited by Pittsburgh coach Joey Porter. Nobody denies that Porter, a four-time Pro Bowler, who played on the edge and was once ejected from a game before it even started, had no business being on the field. Several Bengals said he was screaming expletives at the players, which is, yet again, dealt with in the rulebook.
Rule 13, Section 1, Article 8: “Non-player personnel of a club (e.g. management personnel, coaches, trainers, equipment men) are prohibited from making unnecessary physical contact with or directing abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures at opponents, game officials, or representatives of the League. Penalty: Loss of 15 yards.
Jones received a penalty. Porter did not. Just because.
At this point, I suspect many of you — particularly Pittsburgh fans — will have your evidence that I’m complaining about the officiating in this game. But, I promise you, I’m not. Think about the Burfict sack, the one that blew up Roethlisberger’s shoulder. Carey said the hit was “definitely legal.” The announcers, including former quarterback Phil Simms, seemed in complete agreement. Indeed, the hit looked pretty standard for pro football.
But consider Rule 12, Article 2, Section 9, Subsection B: When tackling a passer who is in a defenseless posture (e.g., during or just after throwing a pass), a defensive player must not unnecessarily or violently throw him down and land on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight. Instead, the defensive player must strive to wrap up the passer with the defensive player’s arms
Now, I have no idea what that means. What is a defenseless posture? What is the difference between an unnecessary/violent throw and a necessary/gentle one? No clue. What I do know is that Burfict threw his full weight down on Roethlisberger and his shoulder. It was menacing hit, against the spirit of the rule in the very least. It probably was intended to hurt Roethlisberger though, of course, we can never know for sure Anyway, aren’t all hits intended to injure? The referees didn’t call a penalty. Nobody seemed to care.
Pro football is a savage Rorschach test, where some fans see outlines of angels, some see the outline of devils and the referees see clouds. Nobody should take this to mean that the Bengals were jobbed. The Bengals blew it, no doubt. Jeremy Hill fumbled when his only task was not to fumble (he took full responsibility after the game). Burfict was out of control more or less the whole game and his hit of Brown was borderline criminal. Adam Jones lost his composure with his team’s fate on the line. All of those things are true.
But let’s say that the NFL had called Shazier and Porter for personal fouls, and the Bengals won the game. What are we talking about today? Maybe we’re talking about how the Steelers play dirty football, something that has been said for years. Maybe we’re talking about how Mike Tomlin so lost control of his team that he had TWO COACHES get personal foul penalties (offensive line coach Mike Munchak had received one earlier). Maybe we’re wondering about Tomlin’s humanity and feelings for his players considering he put a debilitated Ben Roethlisberger into the game barely a minute after it was clear Roethlisberger was much too hurt to play.
The Bengals deserved to lose the game. But so did the Steelers. The referees made the call. They often do in this rare game played nowhere else on earth.