Flem File: Handicapping NFL handshakes

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
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FlemKurt Snibbe/ESPN.comTension, testosterone and ego: Some of the weirdest NFL action occurs in the coaches' postgame handshake.
It was the best and worst six seconds of the season.

By now you’ve seen the angry and awesomely awkward postgame handshake between the Steelers' Mike Tomlin and the Ravens' John Harbaugh. Having just beaten Baltimore at home with Charlie Batch under center, a bug-eyed Tomlin extends his hand and attempts to blow past Harbaugh without barely looking up or even acknowledging his rival.

Of course, John Harbaugh -- not to be outdone by his brother Jim in San Francisco, the worst hand-shaking coach in the history of the NFL -- is having none of it.

He locks onto Tomlin’s hand, spins him around like a rag doll and forces him to acknowledge that he did, in fact, congratulate him on the victory.

There’s so much tension, testosterone, ego, insecurity, petulance, immaturity and pure goofy, middle-school meat-headedness in this one simple six-second exchange that it’s impossible to look away from the screen.

And as the two coaches finally separate, you’re left with this thought:

If you believed the postgame handshake was a simple, sacred, time-honored and universal symbol of sportsmanship that not even the NFL could screw up, think again.

Whether it’s Tomlin vs. Harbaugh, Harbaugh vs. Schwartz I and II, Haley vs. McDaniels or Belichick vs. well, everyone, some of the weirdest action in the NFL occurs at midfield just seconds after the completion of the actual game.

No wonder some online gambling sites have even begun taking wagers on these exchanges.

With that in mind, the Flem File decided to get out in front of this trend and handicap 10 remaining potential handshake controversies that could take place between now and the end of the Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. Enjoy.

1. Gary Kubiak vs. Bill Belichick, Week 14 in New England

Shakedown: Two heavyweights go at it on national television in a potential preview of the AFC Championship Game. Tune in because, I’m telling you, this has all the ingredients of becoming the next handshake-ageddon:

Kubs, the former QB, marches his buzz cut toward Belichick, the defensive ace with the hacksaw wardrobe, after J.J. Watt has terrorized Tom Brady and the Texans' explosive offense has run up the score on the Pats (while cut-blocking Vince Wilfork a dozen or so times).

What could go wrong?

Belichick’s open disdain for the way the postgame handshake has been transformed from a quaint expression of sportsmanship to a midfield media circus is commendable.

But the truth is, Belichick practically invented the handshake controversy in 2006 when he seemed to snub both of his protégés, Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels, once they became head coaches.

And after losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, he also bolted from the field early.

(To which I say: If two NHL teams can battle each other for weeks on end and then seconds after the end of a brutal, bloody Game 7, line up and shake hands like men, then, uh, yeah, you would think even a genius such as Belichick should be able to walk across the field, press a little flesh and look his opponent in the eye in the name of sportsmanship.)

Prediction: A classic icy-eyed, quick-clutch, two-ships-passing-in-the-night shake. Although, if Belichick’s typical indifference to the proceedings is perceived by a victorious Kubiak as condescension, we could be looking at a potential stare down or even a double, dismissive head shake.

The taller Kubs would win the stare down, but nobody beats Belichick when he’s in angry-old-man mode.

[+] EnlargeHarbaugh & Schwartz
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesHarbaugh escalated the ritual to a new level last October.
2. Jim Harbaugh vs. Bill Belichick, Week 15 in New England

Shakedown: You’ve got the two oddest, most hyper-competitive, contentious coaches in the league, locked in a possible Super Bowl preview, each of them armed with the kind of massive ego that makes them believe they alone are above or exempt from the oldest, most time-honored and universal symbol of mutual respect known to mankind.

What could possibly go wrong?

Prediction: Last season Harbaugh escalated this ritual to a whole new level when his overly enthusiastic shake and backslap on Lions coach Jim Schwartz almost sparked a postgame brawl in San Francisco. Both coaches tried to downplay the altercation but they weren’t fooling anyone.

The truth is, Schwartz had no choice but to go after Harbaugh. The hard backslap after a conciliatory handshake is the adult male version of a wedgie.

I love how the New York Times summed up this whole childish trend perfectly when they called Harbaugh’s actions “graceless exuberance.”

Well, guess what? Schwartz is a Belichick guy.

So, Harbaugh better rein himself in or he might be wearing that little pen necklace of his as a noose.

3. Jeff Fisher vs. Greg Schiano, Week 16 in Tampa Bay

Shakedown: This is a classic mismatch between one of the most experienced and most respected coaches in the NFL and a guy famous for how hard his team hits once the game’s over.

I think Fisher finishes what Tom Coughlin started when Schiano first pulled his classless, clueless attack on the victory formation all the way back in Week 2. If Schiano pulls this stuff on the Rams on the final play of the game, it would not surprise me one bit if Fisher instructs Sam Bradford to do what we’ve all been waiting for:

Fake the victory formation, pull the ball as the bodies pile up at the line of scrimmage and hit a wide-open receiver for an 80-yard touchdown to end the game.

Prediction: If the game ends that way (and god I hope it does) you can expect Fisher to subtly rub it in by giving a furious, red-faced Schiano a good, old-fashioned, straight-on, square-shouldered church shake (extended hold, forced eye contact) with just a tiny bit of “You mad, bro?” smirk.

That’s an effective way for Fisher, the elder statesman, to dress down Schiano, the classic bone-crunching bully.

Or, I could also see Fisher going Beli-phantom on Schiano and just refuse to shake his hand afterward.

4. Jim Harbaugh vs. Pete Carroll, Week 16 in Seattle

Shakedown: Dating back to their days as Pac-10 rivals, these two have so much handshake history they put the “meta” in metacarpals.

In 2009, Carroll uttered the now-classic Jeff Spicoli-inspired “What’s your deal? You good?” to Harbaugh after he went for two late in a blowout win by Stanford.

“I’m good,” responded Harbaugh. “What’s YOUR deal?”

(Still can’t believe Carroll didn’t respond: “I know you are but what am I?”)

They behaved themselves in Week 7 after a physical 13-6 win by the 49ers.

But afterward Carroll mocked Harbaugh for whining about the physical play of the Seahawks' defensive backs, setting the stage for an epic, bone-crunching confrontation.

Prediction: Carroll seems to understand that Harbaugh is a complete wild card in these things, which is why I suspect he used the classic left-hand elbow lock to control the 49ers' coach during their last meeting.

Much like leg-humping in canines, this is a sneaky show of dominance in the coaching handshake game and my hope is Harbaugh will respond Greco-Roman style on Carroll with his own left-hand elbow lock, thus forming the dreaded, spinning elbow octagon.

If these guys aren’t careful, someone could lose an eye.

[+] EnlargeNorv Turner, Rex Ryan
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesWill one of these two need a new job next season?
5. Norv Turner vs. Rex Ryan, Week 16 in East Rutherford, N.J.

Shakedown: Despite the lack of postseason implications in this game, both of these coaches could be emotional basket cases by the time they collide at midfield.

Turner and Ryan could be coaching for their future employment, and that adds a dark twist to the proceedings.

As we all know, Turner’s teams fade late while Ryan isn’t above running up the score at home to appease fans and media.

So you could have an angry, embarrassed Turner on his way to the unemployment line bumping into a happy, bubbly Ryan screaming and shouting at midfield.

It’s like a car crash, I can’t look away.

Prediction: It’s not just the emotions that are a mismatch -- the handshake styles couldn’t be any more different as well.

Ryan’s all over the map: He might hug, high-five or even blast out a chest bump or belly bop. Because he’s bigger than most coaches, Ryan likes to lay a condescending left hand on top of the other coach’s right shoulder which is the handshake equivalent of patting a little child on top of the head.

If Turner has blown yet another lead and yet another great opportunity, that might be more than he can take. Although, I’m guessing Turner’s more of a dead-fish-grip kind of guy.

And it will be cold so there’s a good chance he’ll be wearing mittens.

6. John Harbaugh vs. Marvin Lewis, Week 17 in Cincinnati

Shakedown: There’s just something about the history of this division and bad handshakes that says this one could go sideways on us.

In 1987, after a tough loss to a division rival, Steelers coach Chuck Noll used a death-grip handshake to hold Oilers coach Jerry Glanville in close for a scolding about dirty tactics.

“He wouldn’t let go of my hand,” Glanville told ESPN. “He became infatuated with my hand.”

Noll used his free hand to wag his finger in Glanville’s face, giving birth to the “lock-drag-n-wag,” one of the most contentious and widely used angry shakes in coaching.

In 1989, Bengals coach Sam Wyche returned the favor with a 61-7 whitewash of the Oilers. Afterward he called Glanville a “phony” and refused to shake his hand. Nice.

Wyche is the same guy who once chided his own fans for throwing snowballs by telling them: “You don’t live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati.”

Prediction: Lewis has lasted in Cincinnati an entire decade without managing to accumulate a single meaningful win.

So, while he has lots of experience being on the losing end of these greetings, I worry how he’ll react after 10 years if he’s finally the victor.

Will Lewis ask for a hug? Or a chest bump? Or awkwardly try to shake with his left hand? Will he try to just get away with texting him?

I think it might be a good idea for the Bengals to bring in a handshake consultant or a local politician to brief Lewis and his players on proper postgame handshake techniques.

I mean, a lot has changed since 1990.

PLAYOFFS

7. Mike Tomlin vs. John Harbaugh II, Jan. 5 in Baltimore

Shakedown: Both coaches called their angry, awkward exchange a non-issue.

Both said it wasn’t uncomfortable at all.

Both said they had no hard feelings.

Yeah, right.

Please, this is Steelers-Ravens, the best, most physical, intense and decorated rivalry in sports.

Of course the animosity and handshake agita will continue in the postseason should the two teams meet again in the playoffs, where the Steelers have beaten the Ravens on the way to Super Bowl XLIII and Super Bowl XLV.

Prediction: Even though the Steelers won the game, Harbaugh managed to win the shake by holding on to Tomlin’s hand and whiplashing him back around like a scolded child.

“Hey, hey, hey, I said congratulations,” Harbaugh barked.

These aren’t hand-slap, bolt-in-opposite-directions kind of guys.

Instead, I see both coaches marching toward each other, shoulders square, chest out, like two boxers in a ring.

That kind of momentum and emotion usually leads to what I like to call the “collapsing telescope,” where the extended arms and handshake fold inward until the two men’s chests and chins meet.

And just like with any other Ravens-Steelers matchup, what happens after that is anyone’s guess.

8. John Mara vs. Dan Snyder, Jan. 13 in New York

Shakedown: File this under: Act like you’ve been there before.

After an impressive 17-16 win at home on Monday that moved the 6-6 Redskins into playoff contention, team owner Dan Snyder was overheard telling a staff member in the post-game locker room, “I hate those m-----f------.”

Other than his own preternatural pettiness, Snyder was motivated by comments by Mara, who suggested the Redskins got off easy after alleged salary cap violations.

“I think [the Redskins] are lucky they didn’t lose draft picks,” Mara said.

The Redskins also suggested that the Giants were getting a break from the officials because they helped negotiate an end to the lockout earlier this season.

The fact that the Redskins needed to use these perceived slights as motivation only shows how unfamiliar the team has become with actual competitive football.

Prediction: Maybe Snyder is trying to channel former Skins coach George Allen, who used to wave at opposing coaches rather than shake their hands after games and once even challenged Cowboys coach Tom Landry to a fight at midfield.

But in height, football hardware, leadership and actual, you know, contributions to the game, Mara towers over the diminutive Snyder.

So I wouldn’t be shocked to see Mara shake Snyder’s hand like a gentleman and then pat him on the head as he moves across the field to embrace Ed Hochuli.

[+] EnlargeTodd Haley, Josh McDaniels
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesAn angry Haley left McDaniels hanging in 2010.
9. Todd Haley vs. Josh McDaniels, Jan. 6 in New England

Shakedown: This belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of bad shakes.

November 2010: In the background, flames shoot out the top of the scoreboard in Denver after McDaniels’ Broncos beat Haley’s Chiefs 49-29.

At midfield, McDaniels extends his right arm, thumb and fingers spread, preparing for some classic fraternity-rush-chairman, fleshy double-pump action -- only to be left hanging by a finger-wagging Haley who, believing the Broncos had run up the score, barks cryptically at McDaniels: “There’s a lot of s--- being talked about you.”

Both men then stormed away in opposite directions. The next day Haley apologized and both coaches downplayed the incident but, the truth is, the offered-but-uncompleted shake exposed an immaturity and pettiness that neither man has been able to shake.

Prediction: Accordingly, a year or so later, both men were back where they belonged, working as assistant coaches. Haley is now with the Steelers and McDaniels is in New England, so in the playoffs these two might finally get to finish what they started in 2010.

10. Jim Harbaugh vs. John Harbaugh, Feb. 3 in New Orleans, Super Bowl XLVII

Shakedown: Has a handshake pairing ever overshadowed the Super Bowl?

This one could.

Between Jim’s back slaps and John’s socket-popping death grip, with a billion people watching, these two guys could destroy one of the oldest and most important rituals known to mankind.

Cool.

Online sports books actually took action on whether or not Harbaugh vs. Schwartz II would end in a shake (minus-500) or a hug.

Can you imagine the line on this one?

I mean, we could see everything from a hug to a full-on fistfight to an old-fashioned standoff where each brother waits for the other to extend, or release, his hand first.

You go first. No, you go first. You go. No, you. Mooooomm!!!

Think that’s ridiculous or childish or crazy?

You must not have brothers.

Prediction: That’s why I am proposing handshake chaperones for the Harbaugh boys if they both make it to the Super Bowl.

At the end of the game, Jack Harbaugh, their dad, will take Jim by the ear and escort him to midfield while Joanie, their sister, will do the same with John.

And both escorts will maintain a firm grip on each coach’s earlobe until such time as the boys have managed to complete what has become a rarity in today’s NFL:

A calm, clean, meaningful handshake between two mature adults.

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