FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Fumbles transform the NFL into the WWE.
When a football hits the ground, players are known to do whatever it takes to get it. Nothing is off limits.
Eye-gouging. Crotch-grabbing. Biting. Kicking. Punching. Choking.
All that’s missing are brass knuckles, steel chairs and other objects made famous by the grapplers in World Wrestling Entertainment. Don’t be surprised if someone tries the sleeper hold sometime.
“When there’s a fumble, all rules are gone. Anything goes,” said Jets veteran defensive lineman Trevor Pryce. “Somebody bit me in the arm once, but I got the ball. I started screaming ‘Get off of me.’ If you’re caught in an awkward position — like your arm is about to pop off — you start screaming and guys start to get off of you.”
It might as well be “Rowdy” Roddy Piper or George “The Animal” Steele fighting for the ball. At a time when the NFL is showing very public concern about hits to the helmet, nobody really wants to investigate the mayhem that goes on when the ball gets loose.
“What goes on in a pile is sacred. You’re not supposed to talk about it,” Jets linebacker Bart Scott said half-jokingly. “People have tried to break my fingers. You do what you gotta do to get the ball out.”
Some of the Browns players complained that the New Orleans Saints used dirty tactics during Cleveland’s 30-17 win over the defending Super Bowl champions last Sunday.
Safety Nick Sorensen accused the Saints of gouging his eyes. Returner Josh Cribbs said he was grabbed in the groin area. Linebacker Blake Costanzo told Sorensen he saw teammates getting choked.
“It’s a part of the game. It’s happened before and I’m sure it will happen again,” Sorensen said. “I had heard of eye-gouging before, I just had never experienced it. I was a little ticked off but that’s just part of it.”
Sorensen says he got poked in the eye when he tore the ball away from Pierson Prioleau after Cribbs fumbled a kickoff in the second quarter. Sorensen held onto the ball, but he understands why players resort to such extreme measures.
“I almost let go when he did it,” Sorensen said. “So it wasn’t that stupid.”
Saints free safety Darren Sharper downplayed what happened, saying it’s typical behavior in pileups.
“I thought that’s what always happens in the piles,” Sharper said. “I’ve had my eyes gouged. I had my neck grabbed. I’ve had all that happen. People will do anything to try to get the football. All of that stuff happens in a pile because you can’t see anything and a lot of times guys are trying for the football and can end up grabbing other body parts. You don’t want to have guys gouging eyes out because that can hurt somebody, but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone really get hurt from a pile, so it’s nothing too serious I don’t think.”
The reason piles get so rough is pretty simple: Turnovers often can be game-changing plays.
“When the ball comes out, that’s pretty precious,” Bengals guard Bobbie Williams said. “You’ve got to look at the football as being a flawless diamond that size and it’s up for grabs and whoever can get it and hold onto it, they’re in a good position.”
Even quarterbacks sometimes get involved in all that craziness at the bottom of a pileup. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was right in the middle of an end-zone scrum during a controversial play that led to Pittsburgh’s 23-22 win at Miami last Sunday.
With the Steelers down 22-20 and less than three minutes remaining, Roethlisberger fumbled as he neared the goal line on a quarterback draw from the 2-yard line. The head linesman signaled a touchdown, so the officials didn’t bother sorting out who recovered the fumble.
After a review, it was determined Roethlisberger fumbled before crossing the goal line. Because the replays didn’t show conclusively which team recovered the ball, the Steelers kept possession and Jeff Reed kicked a decisive 18-yard field goal.
“Everyone was fighting for the ball, people were grabbing and trying to pull everybody,” Roethlisberger said. “I heard, ‘Touchdown, touchdown, touchdown,’ so I let go. I didn’t want to get my arm broken.”
Eli Manning has a safe approach. The New York Giants quarterback prefers to stay far away from the scrums.
“I don’t get into many of them,” he said. “If there is a big pileup, it’s usually the linemen around there. You have to fall on him.”
Some players have a reputation for taking cheap shots when bodies are stacked on each other — and avoiding them isn’t so easy, especially when the game’s on the line and a ball is loose.
“Some of the guys in the league are notorious for grabbing, punching, biting, pinching under those piles,” Redskins guard Artis Hicks said. “You do whatever you can to get that ball out, so that’s why you see so many guys run and get on the pile. A lot of times it’s not necessarily to get the ball, it’s to try to protect your guy, too. It’s a lot that can go on in those tight confines.”
Referees can’t really see what’s happening at the bottom of the pile, and cameras don’t give a clear view when there’s a bunch of 300-pound guys jumping on top of each other.
With no fear of being penalized, players will try anything.
“When you’re trying to get the ball, you can’t get flagged for what happens in the pile,” Lions defensive tackle Corey Williams said. “I’ve had it all done to me, and I’ve done it to people.”
Some players take mental notes of who does what to them in a pileup. Then they wait for the right opportunity to get revenge.
“You red-dot a guy if he does something,” Scott said.
What’s that mean, exactly, Bart? “Red dot means red dot,” he said.
Pileups also give players a chance to retaliate for other cheap shots taken during a game.
“That’s where guys get their get-back,” Williams said. “If a guy gets cheap-shotted, that guy is going to get his get-back when the refs can’t see.”