Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

03 Dec 2009

Palpably Unfair Acts

FO reader Travis did an impressively-researched post on palpably unfair acts under both NCAA and NFL rules, including examples beyond the 1954 Cotton Bowl.

Posted by: Tom Gower on 03 Dec 2009

47 comments, Last at 06 Dec 2009, 1:25pm by wr


by Key19 :: Thu, 12/03/2009 - 9:26pm

I thought for sure that some commentary on that one college game where the band was on the field would come into the discussion. Oh well. Good stuff.

by Travis :: Thu, 12/03/2009 - 10:22pm

I didn't really think of the Stanford band play, and it might fit, but:

1. Stanford's band was on the field out of confusion, not intent;
2. Stanford would likely have been flagged for illegal participation;
3. Cal scored anyway.

The last play of the Michigan-Nebraska Alamo Bowl was similar, except that Michigan didn't score.

by Raiderjoe :: Thu, 12/03/2009 - 10:25pm

1975 championship game when Steelers use hoses to flood field before game especially along sidelines to take away deep throwing to Cliff Brnach was plapably unfair by Steelers. Raiders receivers couldnt' get any footing. Steelelrs didint care about their own receivers becuause Swann and sttaloowrth and Lewis not as good or effetcive as Branch, Siani and Biletnikoff. steeleers figure why not cheat the game to incerase chance at winning.

by Paul R :: Thu, 12/03/2009 - 11:45pm

Water you saying? The Raiders got hosed?

by Alexander :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 1:07am

Well, everyone knows Rooney pays off the refs before every season. What other explanation is there for them playing the Seahawks and Cardinals in Superbowls, AND THEN getting controversial calls to win said Superbowls.

by Jerry :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 3:55am

Did the Vaseline on George Buehler's jersey cause him to slide along the ice?

by DGL :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 11:28am

I don't know, but the stickum on Biletnikoff's gave him extra grip.

by M :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 1:35pm

While not "cheating" due to an external substance, Ken Stabler (I believe - can someone confirm this?) was the inspiration for the rule where the ball cannot advance forward for a fumble - that the ball always goes back to the spot of the fumble.

Also, I remember reading an old story of the history of the AFL; Sid Gillman (then coach of the Chargers) was absolutely convinced that Al Davis had a bugging device in a light fixture in the visitor's locker room. Later on, Al Davis' only comment on the allegation: "It wasn't in the light fixture".

Pot, meet Kettle; Kettle, meet Pot.

by MCS :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 1:49pm

Although several players were involved, it is usually attributed to Dave Casper. Look up "Holy Roller" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Roller_%28American_football%29

Man I'm getting old. I thought this was common knowledge.

by Bobman :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 3:51pm

Ditto, old boy. Though I sometimes mix this up with "Ghost to the Post" which won their double OT playoff game against the Colts, IIRC the Holy Roller play came after that.

This is a great multi-generational forum (an NFL generation being about 6-8 years, a typical good starter's career), but what really impresses me is when the 20-somethings know specific plays like GTTP or HR and their impact.

Old farts unite! Never trust anybody under 40!

by dmb :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 5:42pm

I'm not sure what GTTP is, though I would probably know it if you wrote out the words. As a 22-year-old who's a relatively dedicated fan, I don't think there's anything impressive at all about having some familiarity with the Holy Roller. It gets named to all sorts of "Top 10 ____" lists.

by Jerry :: Sat, 12/05/2009 - 4:40am

Did you look at the first paragraph of Bobman's post #27?

by dmb :: Sat, 12/05/2009 - 11:16am

I did, I just failed to make note of it. (-1 to me for reading comprehension...)

I don't think I had seen that play before (just watched it), though I was already familiar with the Ken Stabler / John Madden anecdote from the game. ("These guys are sure getting their money's worth today...")

by Raiderjoe :: Thu, 12/03/2009 - 11:50pm

yes, Steelers flood field by spraying masisive amounts of water on it easpecially along sidelines where knew Stabler would be lokking for dangerous receiver Branch to run deep route.s
Weathjer very cold so field get very icy. impossilble to run outside numbers thta day causue field was rug and had ice all over it. Maybe if grass field wouldnt have been as bad

by MCS :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 1:51pm

Steelers say that the week spent with the covers on and the heaters going created a high humidity environment under the tarp. After a tear developed in the tarp the day before the game, the water froze.

I've seen pictures, it must have been a rain forest under that tarp.

by Travis :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 2:48pm

The Dolphins did the opposite before the AFC Championship at the end of the 1982 season. Despite NFL rules, the Orange Bowl lacked a tarp, and overnight rains turned the field to mud. The Jets' (arguably) faster offense could do nothing, and the Dolphins won 14-0.

by Oldcat (not verified) :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 8:05pm

The Bengals used weather witches to force temperatures down to -10 degrees and -50 wind chills when hosting the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship in 1981.

by jebmak :: Sat, 12/05/2009 - 2:38pm


by wr (not verified) :: Sun, 12/06/2009 - 1:25pm

Naa - that would have cost money, therefore the Bengals would not have done it.

BTW, it was -15 that day; I was living in Lexington, KY and conditions were identical, that is to say brutal. What got me was that there were two guys
standing shirtless during that game, and to this day I don't see how they lived to tell about it.

by The Guy You Don't Want to Hear (not verified) :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 12:34am

That was a very entertaining piece. Especially the first story--one of the funniest football stories I've ever heard. I think Mike Curtis's explanation for hitting the fan on-field still wins, but that coach's explanation that the player was subconsciously following orders is close.

by Bobman :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 3:53pm

Mike Curtis freakin' rules!

(I say that partially because his foot is currently pressing against my larynx, but I really really mean it, you know...?)

by The Guy You Don't Want to Hear (not verified) :: Sat, 12/05/2009 - 2:09am

Somehow, I am not surprised that you think Mike Curtis rules.

By the way, you said you were impressed when 20-somethings know about the Ghost to the Post and the Holy Roller. Do I get some credit for knowing Mike Curtis and this incident?

By the way, if anyone didn't know, Curtis just laid out this guy who ran onto the field and stole the football. The guy, unsurprisingly, sued. Curtis explained, "He had the ball. He wasn't wearing our jersey. So I hit him." Curtis ultimately won in court.

by Subrata Sircar :: Sat, 12/05/2009 - 5:11am

Hence the nickname - Mike "Mad Dog" Curtis. Middle linebacker in the mold of (but not quite as good as) Lambert and Butkus.

by Raiderjoe :: Sat, 12/05/2009 - 11:11am

Cutris got nickname in 60s aand that time when he tackle fan occur in 70s. So did not get nickname becuause of fna tackle. sorry if that not what you meant but that what sounded like youy meant,
Curtsi good linebabkcker tough guy

by Anon (not verified) :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 2:43am

I've wondered about this hypothetical situation: Team A has the lead over team B with maybe a minute left in the game and faces 4th down. Team A punts, and the kick is not fielded by Team B. Instead of downing the ball, the punt coverage unit of team A slowly rolls the ball towards its _own_ goal. The entire unit surrounds the ball as the remaining game time is run-off the clock before the ball reaches team A's goal line.

Is such a scenario allowed by NFL or NCAA rules?

by tuluse :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 3:03am

When the ball stops rolling the clock stops. So yes, you can usually get another second or two if the returning team doesn't field it.

by Waverly :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 9:50am

I thought it was: as soon as team A touches the ball inbounds, it's a violation, and the ball is spotted at the point of the foul.

by erniecohen :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 9:54am

No, the ball isn't dead. However, as soon as the coverage team touches the ball, the receiving team can touch it without risk (at least in the NFL), so they would just grab the ball and force the coverage team to tackle them.

by nat :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 3:04pm

Excellent answer!

As you say, once the "illegal touching" foul occurs it is impossible for the punting team to end up with the ball. So the receiving team merely needs to muscle through the coverage mob and down the ball.

The receiving team could gang-tackle the returner and carry him down the field (maintaining forward progress) to run out the clock. But that would be risky, and would be hard to arrange anyway.

by dryheat :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 10:13am

It's illegal touching by the kicking team, which is a violation and the game can't end. So at worst, the offense would get one untimed down.

However, I think the officials would blow the play dead. That seems like it would be illegally advancing the ball. Even if the coverage team just surrounded the ball and made no effort to touch it, I think the officials would blow the play dead if the receiving team makes no effort to advance the ball.

by Anon (not verified) :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 4:12pm

Yes, I had forgotten that the illegal touching penalty would allow an extra down because a game cannot end on a defensive penalty.

However, it is not clear to me that the officials would end the play. I don't see how team A is illegally advancing the ball when it is rolling it towards its own endzone. Things like this happen on a smaller scale when a punt coverage unit bats the ball back over the goal line so that it can be downed inside the 5 yard line.

As for the extra, untimed down that team B gets, I imagine using this tactic when the punt would otherwise be downed well outside of field goal range. I think that a lot of time could be used rolling the ball diagonally with relatively little movement directly towards team A's endzone. At the end of the play, the ball is still outside of field goal range and team B gets only a single play instead of a minute (or more) of game clock.

Of course, because of illegal touching, team B can attempt to advance the ball without negative consequences. But, it might be worth it for team A to do this anyway - a lot of time could be run off the clock before team B realizes exactly what is going on and reacts to it.

by dryheat :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 4:45pm

Ah...I didn't read closely enough and thought you had the ball being rolled the other way.

Nonetheless, all the kicking team can do is down the ball. Unless the receiving team subsequently picks it up, the ball is dead at the spot it was first touched by the kicking team.

Notice in the punt scenario, the batting player has to be airborne. If he contacts the ball while on the ground, it's a touchback.

by zlionsfan :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 6:24pm

It doesn't seem as though there is anything specific that an official could cite to blow the play dead. It would probably be pretty tricky to do, though, because you'd have to make sure you didn't accidentally bat it in the other direction (which would end the play), keep a reasonable number of players around the ball so that a returner wouldn't simply run up and grab the ball or try to knock the kicking team member away from it, and yet not surround the ball to the point that the officials might lose sight of it and blow the play dead for that reason.

If it were done, I expect it would prompt a specific rule change: I don't know whether it would be general (batting a scrimmage kick in any direction, other than to keep it out of the opponent's end zone), slightly specific (batting a ball on the ground), or extremely specific (attempting to keep the clock moving by continuously batting a ball toward the kicking team's goal line), but I suspect we'd only have to worry about it once.

by Oldcat (not verified) :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 8:12pm

"Unsportsmanlike Conduct" is about as broad a concept as you can have.

by bubqr :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 5:25am

That was great Travis !

by andrew :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 8:53am

The Steelers had that wind tunnel advantage they would gain unfairly.... lessee should be able to find a reference....

here, according to former Browns kicker Phil Dawson:

Dawson claims to this day it was a well-known fact among NFL kickers that during games at Three Rivers, the Steelers would open the big door leading to both teams' locker rooms in the fourth quarter only when the opposition was moving in that direction. He said it created a giant wind tunnel that severely limited the length and height of kicks.

by dryheat :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 10:08am

I think Dawson is in fact still the Browns kicker.

by Jerry :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 7:47pm

The Steeler locker room was always at the home plate end of Three Rivers, while the visitors' room was at the outfield end (where doors could be opened). I have no recollection about the state of those doors and whether Dawson's allegation might be true.

by erniecohen :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 10:09am

I never realized that the NCAA rules specifically mention the repeated penalties to halve the distance to your own goal. Good for them. I wonder what prompted this? And did you notice that the NFL rule forbids time-wasting maneuvers by the defense but not the offense? Basically, NFL referees have no real power to punish the offense, beyond conventional penalties and player disqualifications.

The NFL covers such things by allowing the commisioner to redress maneuers that like outside "accepted" football strategy. The NCAA has no such central judicial authority.

by dryheat :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 10:54am

Odd that Matt Cavanaugh is involved in two, as he's the holder, and #12 in the photo, of the snow ploy game.

by Fontes of Wayne :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 11:20am

Wow. I remember watching the Steelers-Jags game, mainly because of the spread (which Travis notes). I had taken the Steelers (+4) in my office's Pick-em Pool that week, and was going to win the week, regardless of whether they made the game-winning FG. That return cost me about a hundred bucks. I don't remember the almost-punch, but I do recall Cowher being on the field, because I heartily wished he would tackle the returner (the fact that he'd have been given the touchdown anyway didn't really matter to me).

by ammek :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 3:41pm

What would have happened if Larry Fitzgerald, having ducked out of bounds in order to avoid the scrum of players in his way, had caught up with James Harrison in last year's Superbowl, given that there was no time left on the clock?

by Tom Gower :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 4:24pm

I'd assume they'd treat it as any other defensive player who went out of bounds on his own and came back into the field of play-personal foul, and the play extended for an untimed down since PIT became the offense after the change of possession.

by Matt Bowyer :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 5:07pm

Since they got rid of the force out, I was wondering how feasible this would be.

Receiver goes over the middle in the end zone and makes a leaping catch.
The safety or linebacker, playing back, lets him come down with it, but attempts to catch him, or at least block his fall as best he can.
Safety then chucks receiver out of the back of the end zone.

At the speed of the game, I can't imagine anyone trying this, but I think technically it's legal.

by Travis :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 5:47pm

In the NFL, it's a catch. In college, it's not (a less extreme version actually happened in USC-Oregon State in 2006 [comment 61]).

NFL Rule 8-1-4-Item 6: Carried Out of Bounds. If a player, who is in possession of the ball, is held up and carried out of bounds by an opponent before both feet or any part of his body other than his hands touches the ground inbounds, it is a completed or intercepted pass.

by bsr (not verified) :: Fri, 12/04/2009 - 6:40pm

Spygate was not a violation of the NFL Rule book. It was a violation of the game operation manual.

by Jay Z (not verified) :: Sat, 12/05/2009 - 10:53am

I attended a high school basketball championship game where a defensive player stole the ball right in front of the opposing bench. The opposing coach reflexively knocked the ball out of the stealer's hand. A technical foul was called and the coach had to sit down for the rest of the game. There was no further punishment.