Ravens head coach John Harbaugh raised a few eyebrows last week when he ran a fake field goal in the third quarter with a 41-17 lead over the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders were lined up in a total overload/block formation on the right side. Was Harbaugh supposed to let them block his field goal? What if the block was returned for a touchdown? What if a Raider runs into kicker Justin Tucker and injures him before scooping the block and returning it for a touchdown the other way? That’s a potential 14-point swing and a lost starter. If you think the Raiders would feel bad for doing so, you must be new to football.
Actually, if I’m the Oakland fans I thank Harbaugh for exposing us in a game already out of reach as every scout from every team watching the game tape probably saw the same alignment and planned to burn the Raiders a few games down the line, most likely when Oakland has to block a field goal that actually effects the outcome of the game.
If you expect the opposing offense to play into your defensive strength, quite frankly, you’re an idiot. You’d have better luck asking them to share their orange wedges with you at halftime. Just because the Raiders didn’t cover, didn’t tackle, and outright didn’t defend in the first half doesn’t excuse them from doing so in the second half. Don’t blame Harbaugh, blame the Raiders coaches for a terrible strategy most high school teams would expose. Hate being burned by a fake field goal when you’re losing by 24? Play a balanced defense.
The issue came up again this past Sunday when New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski broke his forearm, an injury which occurred on an exta-point attempt with the Patriots up 35 points. The misinformed outrage demands to know what Gronk was doing in a game with the Patriots clearly more than comfortably ahead. It was another example of Bill Bellichick running up the score and feeding his ego, right? Not even close, actually.
First of all, asking Bellichick to care about your feelings is like asking Darth Vader to read your diary, but that’s beside the point. According to Belichick and other Patriots staff members, they don’t substitute their special teams players unless it’s absolutely necessary. In my time as a player I must say that was quite common. Bellichick didn’t leave Gronkowski in the game to run up the score. He kept him on special teams because that’s part of Gronkowski’s job. In Bill’s own words, “You only have so many players. You only dress so many players… Somebody’s got to play… I think football players play football. I don’t know how — you tell me which guy is going to get hurt and I’ll get him out of there. I don’t know how you do that.”
From a player’s perspective, Gronk probably isn’t crazy about playing PAT, but he does it because it’s required of him to do so. When was the last time anyone was seriously injured on an extra=point attempt? He’s far more likely to be injured making an acrobatic TD grab in double coverage than a straight up block on PAT. What if the Colts decided to run an overload-FG block on the play like Oakland did to Baltimore? Gronk might be called upon to run a route, and I suppose Bellichick would have been evil for scoring on that play too.
Imagine you go to the bar with your friends. You spend all night dancing with the girl you had your eye on since you walked in. Just before the last two songs of night, the DJ comes over and tells you to sit down so your little brother can dance with your girl. Sure, he’s your brother, you trust him, and you danced with her all night. But the night isn’t over, you’re not finished your job, and you didn’t spend 90 minutes suffering through music you hate to impress this girl so your bro could take over during the slow jam. That’s what it feels like being pulled from a football game during a win. You slay the dragons to storm the castle and kiss the princess, not to watch your friends do it while you man the drawbridge.
In my playing days through high school and college I experienced my share of blowouts, both as a victor and as a victim. What I NEVER experienced was a healthy player EVER asking to be taken out of a game no matter what end of the beating we were on. You stay on the field until a sub runs into the huddle and removes you. Then you argue with the coach who took you out. I’m willing to bet more players are injured falling downstairs or riding motorcycles each year than playing on the field goal unit. I know teammates that played through dislocated shoulders, concussions, broken hands, broken ribs, and torn ligaments without mentioning it. Most players hide injuries and continue playing until they absolutely can’t continue. I know I did.
In one of the more painful memories of my athletic career, I broke my wrist playing in the first game of the season as a high school senior. It happened on the second drive of the game when I came down from the safety spot and made a routine tackle on a wide sweep. I knew within a few plays that something was wrong, but I kept my mouth shut and stayed in the game. I was saved as a receiver on offense since it was a cold, rainy day and our fullback was taking dives for 20 yard scampers, so catching became less of a concern. (I still had two catches for 30 some yards and no drops, thank you very much). If my backup had even tried to get in the game I would have told him to back the hell up and know his role.
What concerned me at the time was our field goal unit, because I was the holder on extra-point attempts and we didn’t have a backup. Our backup QB (normally the holder) was also our punter and field goal kicker, so the alternative would have been to bench myself and attempt two-point conversions for the rest of the afternoon (we won handily by four touchdowns). Of course no one knew how bad my wrist was including myself until after the game, but it would have changed little. For what it’s worth, that was the last game I played in my high school career. My holds? Well, 6-6 on the day, and a perfect 5-5 on extra points after the break as we won 42-7. As far as I’m concerned we should have been awarded three points for each one given my handicap.
I’d be living with remorse if I removed myself from that game, because it was the last time I played high school football. To this day that game replays in my mind as the most bittersweet moment of my teenage years. Insert extensive medical explanation: two casts, one fracture reset, and a senior season lost here (no, playing through the pain didn’t make it worse, the damage was done). The tough move up to college football was made that much tougher, but to this day no one has felt sorry for me. Wrist fractures are usually reserved for roller skating and falling off swing sets. If I had known that game would be my last as a senior I’d have broken something bigger to cover up for my wrist. Regardless, I wasn’t coming out of the game unless my arm fell off and my fingers hid in the bushes.
Given the choice, I’m pretty sure Gronk would gladly play PAT with two amputated arms and his legs shackled together while running a fake FG for a touchdown against a poorly overloaded defense rather than not play. In fact, he’d do it with a smile on his face. High scores aren’t always the result of one team embarrassing the other, as they’re often instead the result of one team embarrassing themselves. Injuries are bad enough, but quitting insults your opponent, the game, and yourself. Broken bones hurt winners and losers alike, but only winners have something to smile about. The bottom line is that I’d rather get injured in a blowout win than be healthy after a blowout loss. Break my body all you want, but you can’t break my pride. I played to win every time, and will never apologize for that.
Luke Purm is a freelance writer and former college football player (a wide receiver at Simon Fraser University) with an inside look at the sights and sounds from the huddle, down the field, through the air, in the endzone, under the pile, out of the locker room, on the scoreboard, and everywhere else football sweats, smells, yells, breathes and collides with life. Follow him on Twitter.