Those who have played football at its highest level often struggle with the cosmic disconnect that exists between what they consider routine work experiences and the interpretations formulated by a rabid following that too often judges NFL sideline behavior with humankind’s social norms.
“Put it this way,” said Vikings Hall of Fame receiver and current ESPN analyst Cris Carter. “The Star Tribune wasn’t my office. My office was the Metrodome. Big difference.”
And he’s not just talking about payday. He’s talking about being able to exhibit the kind of animalistic emotion that would get the rest of us escorted to the nearest curb by Human Resources.
“Football is more than X’s and O’s, it’s passion, it’s physical, your adrenaline is pumping,” Carter said. “Randy [Moss] and I used to talk a lot of trash on the sideline. We’d be talking back and forth to each other, challenging each other during the game, and people would say we were arguing, that there was a problem on the team. We’d be like, ‘Man, these people are stupid.’ ”
Sideline behavior is back in the never-ending NFL news cycle this week because Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant engaged in two separate, lengthy confrontations with team captains and perennial Pro Bowlers Tony Romo and Jason Witten. And since the Cowboys don’t play again until the Vikings visit AT&T Stadium on Sunday, video of Bryant’s actions has been on an endless loop to dissect, discuss and entertain.
Cameras caught Bryant yelling at Romo, who was sitting on the bench next to quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson and coach Jason Garrett, following an incomplete pass late in the third quarter. The Cowboys had to settle for a field goal and a 13-7 lead at Detroit. Bryant had only two catches at the time and finished with three for 72 yards and two touchdowns in the 31-30 loss.
Bryant, Romo and Garrett later insisted that Bryant’s outburst wasn’t negative in nature but instead the product of a competitive fire that was trying to encourage teammates. Audio of the interaction posted along with the video on NFL.com supported their argument.
At one point, Bryant is heard saying, “Hey, if [the Lions] press me, it’s over! It’s over!” Then he points in Romo’s face in a scene that easily could be interpreted differently without the audio.
“Dez never does anything that you would deem selfish,” Romo said Wednesday in a conference call with Twin Cities media. “He’s a very selfless teammate. He’s never done anything from my standpoint that could be construed as coming across in a negative fashion. It may look that way on television and stuff, but it’s just not who he is. He’s a great kid.”
Garrett agreed, calling Bryant a “great human being” and a young player who is still learning to focus his passion on the task at hand.
“He’s as liked and loved a guy as there is on our football team,” Garrett said.
The cameras also caught Bryant and Witten getting into a shouting match after the Lions scored to take a one-point lead with 12 seconds left. Eventually, defensive end DeMarcus Ware, who was inactive for the game, grabbed Bryant and got in his face.
“I think what most people don’t get is everything isn’t supposed to be peaches and cream during games,” Bryant told reporters this week. “There’s always something that doesn’t go right, the way you think it should. It’s the nature of football, period.”
Carter agreed, saying the whole thing “is just not that big a deal” and that Bryant will learn from this because he won’t enjoy spending the whole week being criticized out of context.
“He’ll learn just like the rest of us have learned because the media, they just don’t understand and they don’t want to understand,” Carter said. “It’s going to be on ‘SportsCenter.’ They’re going to make you look bad. So you have to manage it. If not, they’re going to make you look awful the next time.”
Dealing with CC
Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who played alongside Carter with the Vikings from 1994 to 1996, said he thought nothing of Bryant’s first outburst. But when he did it a second time, Moon said, “that’s when it went over the top for me.”
“I’ve had receivers like Cris Carter,” Moon said. “Cris was a guy who never got in my face like that, but he definitely got in [offensive coordinator] Brian Billick’s face about play calls or being open or whatever.
“That’s why when Cris was asked about what Dez did, Cris said, ‘This stuff happens, we’re going to live another day and blah, blah, blah.’ He just kind of blew it off because it happens all the time. I feel the same way, except Dez’s went on so long that it was different.”
Actually, Carter did try to get in Moon’s face at least once during a game. It came during the 1995 season finale at Cincinnati. Detroit’s Herman Moore had caught 10 passes the day before to finish the season with 123, one more than the NFL mark Carter had set the year before. Carter needed nine catches against the Bengals to finish ahead of Moore.
“We were eliminated from the playoffs,” Carter said. “And my No. 1 focus that day was breaking that record.”
Carter went to Moon to demand the ball. Moon, who was 39 and in his 12th season at the time, put Carter in his place, explaining to him firmly that he’d get the ball if the proper read allowed for it.
“I wasn’t happy,” Carter said. “But eventually I understood. It really taught me a valuable lesson for later in my career.”
Carter caught seven passes that day to finish one behind Moore.
So how did Moon back down the extremely strong-willed Carter?
“Just man to man, if you know what I mean,” Moon said. “I just let him know right away that this was not going to happen. You led the league in catches, dude. Get out of my face. I’m getting you the football.”
Moss joined Carter and the Vikings in 1998. Quarterback Daunte Culpepper joined them as a starter in 2000. In the prime of their time together, the Vikings’ sideline behavior was television gold and a weekly topic of conversation.
“Things happen on the sideline in every game,” Culpepper said Thursday. “But I never had a receiver or anyone that we couldn’t communicate with to the point where we could be successful. Did we have disputes every now and then? Yeah, but it never got to the point where I felt I couldn’t do my job.
“And I never had either one of those two come up to me on the sideline and just say, ‘Hey, throw me the ball.’ That would be ridiculous, first off. What they would do is say, ‘Hey, man, the last time we were in this formation, they gave us this coverage.’ They’d say something like that and I’d say, ‘OK, man, I’m already on the same page with you. Let’s go.’ Sometimes, it looks different on TV.”
Carter said Culpepper’s personality allowed for as much animated sideline interaction as there was at the time.
“Daunte wasn’t thin-skinned, and Daunte knew less about the offense and offensive football than Randy and I did,” Carter said. “Daunte and Randy were best friends. Daunte and I were close, but him and Randy, they were from the same culture. So sometimes I would let Randy communicate with Daunte. Randy’s football IQ was so high, I knew he would direct the ball the right way.
“We were like brothers, the three of us. Even when we had our disagreements, we were like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ Certain quarterbacks, depending on their temperament, they won’t allow for that.”
Buddy’s infamous swing
Moon says absolutely nothing that happens on an NFL sideline could surprise him. If you remember the night of Jan. 2, 1994, you understand why.
Moon’s Oilers were playing the Jets in the final game of the regular season. The Oilers were 11-4 and Moon was resting some sore ribs before the playoffs.
Houston’s defensive coordinator was Buddy Ryan. Its offensive coordinator was Kevin Gilbride. One couldn’t stand the sight of the other.
“It started brewing in the offseason when Buddy was brought in,” Moon said. “His 46 defense was known for how tough and physical it was. But our run-and-shoot offense used to kill him in practice. He didn’t know how to defend it. So it became a big ego thing and our head coach, Jack Pardee, didn’t nip it in the bud.”
Ryan mocked the offense, calling it the “chuck-and-duck.” He also didn’t like how its quick possessions kept his defense on the field for longer stretches.
“And things came to a head [against the Jets],” Moon said.
The Oilers led 14-0 with less than a minute left in the first half. The Jets had just gone three and out and Ryan was calling for the offense to run out the clock. But even with backup quarterback Cody Carlson in the game, Gilbride called a pass play. Carlson fumbled the ball away as he was being sacked.
On the sideline, Ryan started yelling at Gilbride. Gilbride started walking toward Ryan. When they got within striking distance, Ryan landed a right cross to the jaw of the bigger, younger Gilbride.
“It was good for Buddy’s sake that some of the defensive players pulled him back,” Moon said. “Kevin and I used to lift weights together. I knew how strong Kevin was. Kevin would have destroyed him. Buddy was an old man at that time. But he was an old, feisty man who thought he could take a swing at another guy on the sideline.”
And with that, the Oilers trotted, ho-hum, to the locker room.
“It really didn’t surprise me because I’ve seen coaches down on the ground wrestling at halftime in the locker room,” Moon said. “This just happened to take place on the sideline with cameras watching. Pardee kind of addressed it, but he really didn’t spend much time on it. It was just, ‘Hey, it’s kind of part of the game. Emotions got involved. It’s over, just move on.’ So, yeah, all this sideline stuff everyone talks about really doesn’t surprise those of us who have been there.”