Before we wrap up Week 14 in a bow (or a "Te-bow" if you're a member of the national media who thinks mentioning the Broncos quarterback every 13 seconds is crucial to your ratings), let me offer Season's Greetings to one of Minnesota's favorite sons, Marion Barber III, running back, Chicago Bears.
Last Sunday in Denver, Barber screwed up twice in spectacular fashion, allowing the Broncos to pull yet another victory out from under their tails and further cementing 2011 as the Year of Tebow Unless You Live in Wisconsin and if You Do Boo-Hoo Enjoy Your Perfect Season While the Rest of the World Focuses its Attention on a Fundamentally Inept Quarterback Who Specializes in Amazing Comeback Victories.
Only one of Barber's screw-ups irked me, however. And not the one you're probably thinking of. Yes, he committed the unforgivable sin of Robert Smithing himself out of bounds while the Bears were trying to run out the clock against the timeout-bereft Broncs.
But that mistake merely gave the Tebows an extra 40 seconds and allowed them to tie the game. What really got under my skin is when Barber committed a crime against humanity, fumbling in overtime when he could have changed the future of the NFL as we know it.
Overstatement? Perhaps, but bear with me.
My biggest pet peeve as an NFL fan – bigger than 15-yard penalties for stupid end-zone celebrations, bigger than punt returners who catch the ball inside the 5-yard line (hello, Marcus Sherels, we're looking at you), bigger than Jon Gruden – is the regular-season overtime rule. It's always bugged me that a team can lose a game in overtime without touching the ball on offense.
Most Viking fans will recall the 2009 NFC Championship Game, unless you paid for expensive electroshock therapy to erase that memory, and my health plan at the time didn't cover elective brain realignment and yours probably didn't either. After 12 men in the huddle, and after a certain aging gunslinger ignored a wide-open Bernard Berrian and committed the cardinal sin of throwing across his body over the middle, the Saints won the coin flip, got a couple of first downs and kicked the game-winning field goal without the Vikings offense ever taking the field.
Now, I'll concede that between Adrian "Butterfingers" Peterson, Brad "Sideline Chaos" Childress and the good ol' gunslinger, the Vikings probably would have found a way to screw it up in overtime. But they at least should have had that chance.
My stridency toward this rule dates back to Sept. 17, 1995, when the Vikings lost a Sunday night game at the Metrodome against the Dallas Cowboys. Warren Moon led a late comeback that culminated in an 8-yard touchdown pass to Cris Carter in the waning moments of regulation, tying the score at 17. But Dallas won the coin toss, and everybody in the house knew that it was over the moment that silver dollar settled onto the Metrodome turf.
Both teams' defenses were absolutely spent. It was an unseasonably warm day, and a brutal slugfest left both squads gassed after 60 minutes. The overtime period played out as expected – the Cowboys methodically marched into field-goal position before Emmitt Smith broke free for a 31-yard touchdown run, and the Vikings lost without ever running a play in overtime.
The "purists" love to point out that defense and special teams are part of the game too, and thus both teams have an equal chance to win. "You don't like it? Stop 'em," they sneer while dreaming of a day when Dick Butkus decapitated running backs and Alan Page head-slapped his way to the Hall of Fame.
However, if that theory were pertinent to overtime, why does the team that wins the coin toss always elect to receive the kickoff? They know that playing offense is a distinct advantage, even more so these days with seemingly every rule designed to protect the quarterback and receivers at the expense of the defense.
Sure enough, those 2009 Vikings lost the flip, the Saints ran the kickoff back to their 39 and Cedric Griffin blew out an ACL on the play, putting a tired defense another man short. Eventually linebacker Ben Leber was called for a shady pass interference penalty that helped get New Orleans into field goal position, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, that game helped the NFL realize that perhaps something as important as a trip to the Super Bowl shouldn't be so heavily influenced by the flip of a coin, so it instituted new rules for overtime playoff games – if the team that receives the overtime kickoff converts a field goal on its first possession, it must kick off and give the opposing offense a possession.
That change doesn't go as far as I would like – I'd prefer to see both teams get the ball regardless of the outcome of the first possession, meaning even those 1995 Cowboys would have had to stop the Vikings on that hot September night in the Metrodome.
But it's a start. The next step is to implement that change in the regular season as well, because in a 16-game season, one game is often the difference between a playoff berth and a January staycation.
Which brings us to Marion Barber.
When Barber coughed up that fumble, he cost Robbie Gould a chance at a game-winning field goal on the first possession in overtime. More important, he cost the world a chance at seeing Tim Tebow and the Denver Tebows defeated without giving Tebow an opportunity to pull off more of that great Tebow magic that has captivated the nation for the past two months.
Can you imagine the hue and cry, the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, had Tebow been denied the chance to touch the ball in overtime? God, it would have been glorious. ESPN would have gone wall-to-wall on every platform with indignant outrage over the injustice of the overtime rules. Skip Bayless might have had an aneurysm on live TV. The sun would have fallen from the sky, the rivers would have turned red with blood, the four horsemen of the apocalypse would have run roughshod over the 24-hour news cycle.
And, lo, the overtime rules would have changed for the 2012 regular season.
But no, Barber had to fumble, giving Tebow his chance to do that thing that he does, and we're still no closer to justice for the coin-flip losers.
And that's why Marion Barber is Public Enemy No. 1. For today, at least.
Patrick Donnelly is a Senior Editor at SportsData, contributor to the Maple Street Press Vikings 2011 Annual, and has covered the Vikings for FOXSportsNorth.com, Viking Update and the Associated Press.
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