The play sure to drive a coach batty
Eighteen years into this Flem File gig, I like to consider myself something of a connoisseur of the weekly fits of rage that pepper the NFL landscape. And so it was with particular relish that I reviewed the postgame behavior of one of the genre's quiet masters, Tom Coughlin, after his Giants had fumbled and bumbled the ball away in every imaginable fashion during a 36-31 loss to the monumentally mediocre Cowboys. Although most of the postgame attention focused on Coughlin's response to the two fumbles by Giants running back (at least for now) David Wilson, if you look closely, the old-school coach's leathery face actually turned a deeper shade of purple-y rage a moment later when asked about the Giants' final turnover.
With less than two minutes to play and the ball at midfield, New York was, somehow, still in position to win the game. Then disaster struck. (For the sixth time, you might say.)
A seemingly simple screen pass from Eli Manning turned catastrophic when the ball tipped off the hands of Da'Rel Scott, up into the air -- where it floated and twirled like Forrest Gump's fateful feather -- before landing right in the breadbasket of Dallas cornerback Brandon Carr, who promptly returned it 49 yards for the game-clinching TD.
I was pleased, but not at all surprised, to learn that Coughlin's philosophy on the dreaded tipped ball is exactly the same as my dimwitted high school coach's: If you can touch it, son, by God you should catch it. "I thought Da'Rel Scott did some good things," Coughlin began, his face slowly turning the same shade of purple as the Gatorade bottle he was choking the life out of in his right fist. "But popping the ball up? I mean, man oh man, there's a sense of urgency about this. Whole game was like that: total disregard, carelessness, for the ball. There has to be an understanding that that's how you lose."
For starters, in Tom Coughlin vernacular, "Man oh man" is about as close as you can get to an F-bomb. And, at the end of his mini-rant, Coughlin stretched out the last "o" in "lose" so it sounded more like some kind of strange New Jersey hunting call -- "leeeeeeews." (We really wanted to ask New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie about this pronunciation; alas, he was too busy cleaning Jerry Jones' reading glasses.)
What Coughlin's reaction really emphasized, however, was the biggest takeaway from an epic Week 1 in the NFL:
The real silent scourge of the pass-happy, intricately choreographed, offensive explosion taking place in the 2013 NFL is the tipped ball. And here at the Flem File -- for anyone who hasn't been following along in this space during the last 18 football seasons -- we believe the chaos this creates is a good thing for football. A very, very good thing.
We are one week into unprecedented times, people. Teams already have thrown for 8,143 yards and scored 63 TDs -- the most ever in a single week of pro football. At the same time, though, a record 12 games were decided by seven points or fewer. Now factor in the importance of turnover margin in the NFL (last year in the NFC six of the top seven teams in +/- made the playoffs) and you'll begin to understand just how precious and influential these moments are when the ball is tipped and orbiting in space and -- for just a few exquisite seconds -- truly up for grabs.
Between all the new legislation, the touchbacks and the remarkable precision of the new wave of offense, the tipped ball has become the NFL's version of a lunar eclipse -- one of the few remaining moments of pure, organic random beauty in the football universe. (Sure, that's a slight exaggeration but hey, it beats focusing on the other lunar event from Week 1 involving the Chiefs' Tyson Jackson.)
The game is now so tightly controlled that even the refs are confused about who is allowed to touch whom and when. But the tipped ball -- an act that actually negates pass interference -- is one of the few moments when we're allowed to shut the rule book for a moment and say to the 22 snarling, angry men hovering under the football like an egg-shaped pinata full of caramel and nougat: OK, fellas, have at it.
"With all the time and energy we all spend holding on to and controlling the ball, a tipped ball is one of the few times during a game that the ball is actually up for grabs, like a rebound in basketball," former NFL offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski told me in 2006 when I first wrote about the phenomenon. "It's a scary deal to watch. I actually find myself holding my breath until the ball hits the ground. It can be that important, that much of a game-changer."
As it was in Buffalo when Patriots undrafted rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld let a ball bounce off his hands and straight to Buffalo's Justin Rogers. The Bills scored 23 seconds later to turn what looked like a rout into a nail-biter for the Pats.
As it was in Cleveland, where, on the heels of leading the league with 21 batted passes in 2012, Brandon Weeden opened 2013 with two tipped passes -- by Greg Little and Jordan Cameron -- that resulted in interceptions against the Dolphins.
("It hit my hands, I've got to catch it," said Cameron. A reaction that backs up my theory that interceptions tipped by offensive players should be reduced by 50 percent when calculating passer ratings.)
As it was in San Diego, where Matt Schaub's first pass of the season was tipped and intercepted by 330-pound nose tackle Cam Thomas. (Yet another wonderful byproduct of tipped balls: fat dudes getting to run with the football.) This, of course, led to the Chargers' scoring the fastest TD in team history (15 seconds) on the next play.
It was a strange, momentary twist for the Texans, who have benefited greatly from tipped and batted balls. Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, has turned the tipped pass into both an art form and a new-age defensive weapon. Watt has batted 17 passes since the start of 2012, leading to a league-high eight interceptions off tipped balls. Now I'm sure there will be a new rule coming very soon that somehow transforms tipped balls into an advantage for offenses, but for the time being it almost always benefits defenders who are already swarming toward the ball and, therefore, far more likely to come up with it.
Just like the Saints' defense did in Atlanta. On Sunday, New Orleans held on to a 23-17 upset of the Falcons after Roman Harper intercepted a Matt Ryan pass in the end zone after it was -- wait for it -- tipped by rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro.
For me, the game-saving play by the Saints reinforced two major takeaways from a historic week in the NFL.
By my count, the phenomena of tipped balls has grown to a point that it directly affects almost half of all NFL games.
Which means Drew Brees wasn't the only guy working on his tipping skills this offseason.