Here is an excerpt from the NFL rulebook you might find interesting.
“Using entering substitutes, legally returning players, substitutes on sidelines, or withdrawn players to confuse opponents, including lingering by players leaving the field after being replaced by a substitute and an offensive player lining up or going in motion less than five yards from the sideline in front of his team’s designated bench area. However, an offensive player is permitted to line up less than five yards from the sidelines on the same side as his team’s player bench, provided he is not in front of the designated bench area.”
That comes verbatim from the section describing “unsportsmanlike conduct.” It took me less than ten minutes to find it online with no special league access whatsoever. In fact, the document I discovered is located at the aptly titled web address of nfl.com/rulebook. Once there, I clicked on a less-than-vague title inviting me to “Download the Official Playing Rules … of the NFL.” In other words, finding, locating, understanding, and learning the National Football League’s rules doesn’t seem like rocket science. So how did the Cleveland Browns screw it up so badly?
On a 2nd-and-11 play in the second quarter vs. Baltimore Sunday, the Browns utilized a nifty piece of deception to get Johnny Manziel open for what appeared to be his first NFL catch. Manziel had handed off to teammate Isaiah Crowell on the previous play and then appeared to come off the field. However, Manziel stayed inside the boundary (facing his coach on the sideline), and when the ball was snapped to starting quarterback Brian Hoyer, the uncovered rookie took off running down the field at the encouragement of said coach. Manziel gained 39 yards on the resulting catch, but an illegal shift penalty on Terrance West negated the gain.
Here’s the only problem with all of that: what Manziel and the Browns did isn’t even close to legal.
On the play in question, the ball was snapped from Cleveland’s 38, which means Manziel was clearly in front of his team’s bench area (the NFL rules define the bench as stretching from 32-yard-line to 32-yard-line. Oh, and there’s no way Manziel was five yards away from the sideline while engaged in “conversation” with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — he might have been five inches away. Maybe.
Setting aside the question of why the NFL officials — whose job it is to know the rulebook we’re discussing — didn’t penalize Cleveland further for the unsportsmanlike conduct, the real issue here is the incompetency of the Browns. Sure, it’s only one play. Sure, it’s fun. Sure, it’s tricky. Sure, it gets the fans excited. But it’s against the rules!
Pleading ignorance only makes it worse. “It was our understanding that where he lined up was sufficient,” Cleveland coach Mike Pettine said later. Hoyer agreed, telling cleveland.com that, “From what we were told, and we practiced it that way all week … it’s a legal play.”
Don’t the Browns have an assistant coach that could run the same Google search I did? Isn’t there some lowly intern at Browns headquarters in Berea, Ohio that’s capable of doing the dirty work of reading every page of the NFL rulebook until they make it to page 64 or thereabouts? A play like this is a microcosm of a franchise that hasn’t won a half dozen games in the same season since 2007, and shouldn’t be acceptable for Cleveland fans.
If you fall into the camp of ‘it’s only illegal if you get caught,’ fine — but some of us still believe in the integrity of the game and trying to follow the rules that have been established. So whether the Browns knew their play was unsportsmanlike according to the league’s definition or they didn’t bother to find out, the verdict is the same. There had to be better things for Cleveland to spend practice time on this week than a play that shouldn’t be allowed to count even if it works. Perhaps the Browns could have used the time to rehearse blocking field goal attempts — like the one that beat them as time expired. Maybe they could have spent some extra time teaching discipline, in an effort to cut down on 12 costly penalties. Maybe they could have had a brainstorming session to try and come up with a creative way to use one of the league’s most exciting players that would fall within the rules?
Anything would have been better than this, because the Hoyer-to-Manziel play call merely makes it seem like we’re dealing with another case of the same old inept Browns from years gone by. Please, Cleveland — read the rulebook next time.