When it comes to running up the score, there's no etiquette in NFL
Issue raised after several NFL teams topped 40 in recent weeks
Trent Dilfer: 'It's a big-boy league and you just deal with it'
High scores may be result in decline of defenses, one exec says
When Chiefs coach Todd Haley on Sunday chose to angrily wag a finger in the direction of Denver's Josh McDaniels, rather than extend a hand, it renewed the debate over a question that has been posed many times before, but never definitively answered:
Is there any etiquette in the NFL when it comes to the scoreboard?
Haley clearly thought so then, and his snub of McDaniels' offer of a postgame handshake left the topic hanging out there -- like the empty right hand of the Broncos youthful head coach -- for the rest of us to mull over in the wake of Denver's 49-29 thumping of first-place Kansas City. At least until Haley issued an apology to McDaniels and Broncos fans the very next day, calling his move "not right,'' and admitting he let his emotions get the best of him.
Haley this week refused to elaborate on what exactly set him off in the course of Denver's 20-point home win, but the facts are these: The last-place Broncos raced to a 35-0 lead in the middle of the second quarter, and were then outscored 29-14 by the Chiefs over the course of the game's final 2½ quarters. It's tough to make a case that Denver ran up the score, but clearly sometimes the blowout is in the eye of the beholder.
These things almost always have a little history to them, and it's probably instructive to remember that in Week 17 of last season, with the swooning Broncos fighting for their lives in the AFC wild-card playoff race, Haley and his 3-12 Chiefs came into Denver and administered a 44-24 beat-down (yep, by that same 20-point margin), snuffing out Denver's postseason hopes at 8-8.
Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles ran for a franchise-record 259 yards that day, and Kansas City's 317 yards rushing were the fourth-highest total in team history. But it was a 27-24 Chiefs lead after three quarters, so there was no notion of K.C. running up the score when it hung another 17 points on the board in the final quarter.
In talking this week to a collection of sources that included a former NFL starting quarterback, an ex-NFL head coach and a current club front-office executive, I found little support for the idea of an unwritten mercy rule in the league. Even though all of them made a distinction of sorts between the standards that are accepted in the NFL game, compared to the college game, where questions have arisen this season about teams potentially running up the score (see Wisconsin 83, Indiana 20 last Saturday in Madison).
"It's a worn-out statement, but it's true: The NFL is a big-boy league and you just deal with it,'' said Trent Dilfer, the ex-NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst. "You don't feel sorry for anyone. Feelings don't matter in the NFL. You don't get many opportunities to be on your 'A' game in the NFL, so you score as many touchdowns as you can. You have to remember that you're also putting stuff on tape for the other teams you haven't played yet to worry about.
"It's beyond being just a game. There are very few unwritten rules in the NFL, and the ones there all have to do with player safety and being professional, and not holding back the dogs when you're ahead. When you're beating someone bad, you're less concerned with their feelings and more concerned with the risk of getting your guys hurt.''
Clearly revenge might have been on Denver's mind last week, but that's not the same as pouring it on in an attempt to add a level of insult to the Kansas City defeat. The Broncos did the vast majority of their damage in the first half, and their second-half play-calling did not suggest they were trying to inflict maximum pain on the Chiefs. They even passed up a makeable field goal late in the game that would have allowed them to top 50 points, breaking the franchise record for one-game scoring.
For that reason alone, McDaniels' approach didn't seem to violate any code of conduct among coaches. Three weeks earlier at Invesco Field, the Broncos and their second-year head coach were on the wrong end of a 59-14 humiliation at the hands of the visiting Raiders. But McDaniels took his medicine without blaming Oakland for its margin of victory, proving that in the NFL, some days you're the windshield and some days you're the bug.
"More than just the final margin, some coaches will take issue with how you play the game in those type of situations,'' a club front-office executive told me. "Like in baseball, there are some things you just don't do. That's what coaches hate to see and get frustrated with at times. You don't call timeouts late in the game when it's out of reach. You don't keep throwing the ball when the game is out of reach. Those things piss people off.
"One of the worst things that can happen is to see one of your players get hurt late in the game because the other team is calling timeouts, trying to get their stats up. Those things cause problems. There was a coach in this league not all that long ago who was notorious for airing it out at times late in the game with a healthy lead. And people didn't like him for it.''
It's not always the team getting blown out that can get irritated in a lopsided game. Earlier this season, Tennessee won 30-3 at Jacksonville, and Titans head coach Jeff Fisher later questioned why Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio used two timeouts inside of the two-minute warning, with Tennessee already up by 20 points. The Titans ended up scoring another late touchdown on a 35-yard, fourth-down Chris Johnson run, and Fisher, with his tongue planted firmly in cheek, wondered if ESPN requested the timeouts in order to get all their commercial breaks in.
"Fisher was a little ticked off because Jacksonville was calling those timeouts late, and the Jaguars wound up getting [their backup quarterback] Trent Edwards hurt in that game," the front-office executive said. "But it's one thing when you're just running the ball down the field and they can't stop you, or you get an interception and take it back for a pick six. But it's another if you've got the big lead and you're still throwing late. That gets people's attention.''
One of the more famous coaching feuds in NFL history came to a full boil after the Bengals rolled it up against the visiting Houston Oilers 61-7 in Cincinnati in 1989. Bengals coach Sam Wyche and Oilers coach Jerry Glanville -- and their teams -- had a good healthy dislike of each other by the time that particular renewal of their divisional rivalry unfolded, and Cincinnati had endured a 41-6 pounding by the Oilers in Houston the previous season.
Press reports of the 1989 game say the Bengals were up 45-0 in the third quarter and executed an onside kick, but Wyche this week insisted that his team was pooch kicking, rather than onside kicking, to make some Oilers' wedge linemen field the ball with their well-taped-up hands. Speaking of hands, Glanville ran for the locker room rather than shake with Wyche at midfield after the game, leaving the Bengals colorful coach to just smile and wave at his fleeing counterpart.
SI Now: Mark Messier on the NHL's fighting culture
SI Now: Mark Messier talks the NY Rangers' problems