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Quiet please

Why should the crowd be able to affect  the outcome?

Posted: Thursday December 1, 2005 9:33AM; Updated: Thursday December 1, 2005 9:43AM
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Boomer Esiason was involved in a play that helped change the NFL rule book.
Boomer Esiason was involved in a play that helped change the NFL rule book.
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I want you to imagine the following scenario. The fans are noisy. The quarterback turns to the referee and says, "They can't hear me." The ref signals him to run his play. He takes a step back. "I won't run it until you quiet down the crowd."

The ref is getting madder and madder. Let's say he's an old timer who doesn't really favor this type of confrontation.

"Will ya run the damn play?" he says. "You're making me look bad."

"You've got a penalty for crowd noise, call it," the QB says. "I'll stand here all night." He's a feisty kind of guy. He puts his hands on his hips and walks away. Now the crowd is really getting into it. Let's say this is a Monday night game. In the booth, the ABC announcers are laughing.

There is an announcement over the P.A. to the effect that the crowd has to quiet down. The decibel volume goes up by about 200 percent. The defensive players on the field start signaling the fans to be quiet. They boo their home team players. There is another announcement, this time that their team will be penalized unless the fans pipe down. "Booooo! Screw you!"

Finally the ref drops the flag. Omigod, he really did it. Howls of anguish from the stands, as he walks off the five yards. There is another announcement about a further penalty, if needed. The howls subside to grumbles. The quarterback steps up and calls his play.

So what do you think of this scenario? Far fetched, huh? Guess what, it really happened. Bengals vs. Saints in the New Orleans Superdome on Monday night, August 28, 1989. That's right, it was an exhibition game. Boomer Esiason was the Bengal quarterback who put on the show. The ref was Dick Hantak, an older official, a nice guy.

On TV, Dan Dierdorf, the ABC color guy, was cracking up. "Look," he said, "Boomer's sneaking over behind the bench now. He thinks nobody will see him there. What an acting job."

Next day everyone who ever wrote a high school editorial was at his typewriter, firing away about the high-handed NFL, dictating to the fans who spent their hard earned money on a ticket (around $30 then, not like today) about when they could or could not make noise. There were cries of fascism from the left wing press.

One writer took the vulgar and highly unpopular position of supporting the NFL in this situation. Competition, he wrote, should be decided by the participants on the field, not by some half-drunk idiot in the stands. Was it I who wrote that? Of course it was, but you knew that already. Oh boy, did I ever get pilloried. Fire that moron was one of the milder suggestions.

Well, I didn't get fired. I wrote the same thing a few years ago, and I think there were about 500 letters yelling about what a fool I was and maybe three in support ... from retired professors living in the Gaspe Peninsula. And now, after watching that crowd-dictated horror show between the Giants and the home team Seahawks, I'm going to write it again. Get your poison pens out of the drawer, folks.

You know by now that there were 11 false start penalties called on the Giants' offense in this House of Noise called Qwest Stadium. Before the kickoff, the basketball coach at the University of Washington, Lorenzo Romar, raised a flag to the top of the end zone stands. It had a No. 12 on it. The 12th man, the fans who would be counted on to provide deafening noise. How about a special ceremony for the captain of the 12th man team? Slap him around, sober him up and pin a medal on him.

The Giants' left tackle, Luke Petitgout, was called for five false starts. He couldn't hear. Few of the linemen could. They tried hand signals, which worked sometimes. "I embarrassed my team and my family," Petitgout said. Got that, Romar? How about taping the quote to the next flag you raise. What pride they must take in that.

Yeah, I'm square enough to believe that somewhere in the nature of competition a spirit of fair play still should exist, that Walter Camp never intended this kind of stuff when he was declaring that the spheroid called a football should be oblate. How quaint. It's like listening to someone extolling the virtues of the horse and buggy, or the humble blacksmith, isn't it? Sorry, but that's where I'm coming from.

Is there anybody on my side in this? Oh yeah, I've found two people. My wife, Linda Bailey Zimmerman, also known as The Flaming Redhead, and actor Joe Pesci's cousin, Gino Pesci, who owns Attilio's Restaurant in Denville, N.J., where we have dinner once a week. It was a real shocker when he announced his support the other night.

"You go to a Nets game," and they're all waving those stupid sticks when the other team's shooting free throws," he said. "What are we, in junior high or something? Same thing in football with the crowd screaming to drown out the signals."

You can't get a rise out of the players or the coaches. It's traditional, they say. I come back with my favorite Emerson quote about a foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds. "Wait till they come to our place," they say. "Yeah, they have great fans, but we do, too. You'll hear some noise."

This crowd noise thing can go to ridiculous extremes. I was watching my school, Columbia, play Brown a couple of weeks ago. The first time Brown had a first down, one of the CU defensive players started waving his arm for crowd noise. I laughed so hard I practically hit the floor. Crowd noise? There were about 800 students, probably half of them not watching the game, in Lawrence A. Wien Stadium (cap.17,000) that day. They couldn't have drowned out a feaking cricket. But that was the mentality of the defensive player. Kind of an inbred thing.

Yeah, drop the flag on the fans, I say. Penalize them. Take hostages, if necessary. But, uh, is there such a penalty still on the books? Better find out.

So I placed a call to Mike Pereira, the NFL's Supervisor of Officials.

"Well, no, it doesn't exactly exist," he said. "It was on the books, but I think that Boomer Esiason game did a lot to get it kind of phased out. First it was changed to a situation where the wide receivers had to be able to hear the quarterback, which was ridiculous, because they're farthest away. Then it became 'At the discretion of the referee,' and 99 times out of 100 he's going to say that the noise isn't loud enough to stop play. What we've got now is a rule that says that the home team can't use artificial means to incite the crowd or raise the volume, such as the scoreboard or a bugle."

I've got to find an ally. Boomer Esiason, there's my guy. Why didn't I think of that? A crusader in the struggle for fair play. I reached him by phone Monday.

"Yeah, I remember the game," Boomer said. "Our coach, Sam Wyche, put me up to it."

Now wait a minute. All my illusions are being shattered here. I mean Boomer was always the kind of guy who liked to mess around on the field. He always hated that nonsense of trying to draw the other team offside by pretending to call a play and not doing it.

"I used to tell the defense, 'Guys, we're doing the fake snap,'" he said. "And the Redskins' Dexter Manley would yell, 'He's lying! He's lying! They're snapping it."

So now Boomer was telling me that it was all a put-up job?

"The league had passed a rule that crowd noise would no longer be an issue," Boomer said. "So this was Sam's way of protest. I was his front man. He wanted it on national TV. I told him, 'Look, it's only an exhibition game. The place won't even be full.' He said, 'I don't care. Wave your arms. Point to your helmet. It's up to you whether you want to do it or not, but if you do, don't stop until they drop the flag.'

"I remember poor Dick Hantak saying, 'What do you mean you can't hear? We're having a conversation, aren't we?' But Sam wanted me to do it, so I did it. If you're trying to find someone who'll agree with you, call Sam. There's your support."

I called Wyche, who is now the Bills' quarterback coach.

"Here was my position on the rule," he said. "My position was that you cannot legislate the crowd. The rule was absurd to begin with. It created a dilemma for the officials. It was going to be our way of getting it off the books."

Wait a minute, I'm confused here. Weren't you protesting the fact that they were dropping the crowd-noise rule? That's what Boomer told me. He said that you were all for for penalizing the crowd, that you were on my side.

"He got it turned around," Sam patiently explained. "I was against that rule. This was our way of sabotaging it. And sure enough, the rule kind of faded away, as these things usually do."

Well, that wipes it clean. Good-bye support. Even though I know in my heart that I'm right, that there's no way under the sky that I'd be in favor of idiot-dictated competition, there is no one on my side. Except for the Redhead. Except for Gino Pesci. OK everybody, bring it on and tell me how stupid I am. Give it your best shot. I'm ready.

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