Published October 15, 2010
ARLINGTON, Texas – From Billy "White Shoes" Johnson to Terrell Owens, from Mark Gastineau to Deion Sanders, NFL players have built their legacies not just as great players but as entertainers — often by punctuating big moments on the field with theatrics.
Then there's Marc Colombo. All he did was slip.
Colombo is the Dallas offensive lineman who flubbed the landing on a chest bump with a teammate following a Cowboys touchdown last weekend. What started as a harmless stunt led to a loss for his struggling team and reopened the discussion about whether the NFL goes too far trying to stamp out showboating.
Officials flagged Colombo for unsportsmanlike conduct. Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1(d) prohibits players "from engaging in any celebrations while on the ground," and Colombo was clearly on the turf.
However, it was also clearly an accident which begs the question: Should officials have just let it go?
"When a player goes to the ground as part of a celebration, we can't judge intent," Carl Johnson, the league's vice president of officiating, said in a video interview about the play on NFL.com. "It's black and white. It is a foul."
Not necessarily, said Johnson's predecessor, Mike Pereira.
"Suppose you're in the end zone after making that catch and go to shake his hand and you trip over his foot and fall down — is that an excessive demonstration?" said Pereira, now a rules analyst on Fox broadcasts. "You have to allow spontaneity. If as part of a player's natural, spontaneous celebration he loses his balance, that wasn't what the league was trying to stop."
Pereira also emphasized there are several rules requiring officials to judge intent, such as intentional grounding.
In general, Pereira likes rules with black-and-white interpretations and he's a fan of curbing celebrations. Yet he believes common sense trumps all, especially in this case.
"Any human would privately say, 'I don't think that's one that should've been called,'" Pereira said.
Dallas tight end Jason Witten was the guy who scored this now-infamous touchdown. As he's done before, Witten sought out Colombo for the honor of spiking the ball. Then they did a flying chest bump, all of which was within the rules.
"If he stayed on feet, we wouldn't have been talking about it," Johnson said.
But, since he did fall, what if there hadn't been a flag?
"I don't think anybody says a word," Pereira said. "Not even Jeff Fisher."
Fisher is the co-chairman of the NFL's competition committee and an advocate of strict enforcement of all rules. He's also coach of the Tennessee Titans, the team the Cowboys were playing. The Titans gladly took a penalty-shortened kickoff, got a long return on it and cashed it in for a winning touchdown.
"There's things you can do and things you can't do," Fisher said. "You can't go to the ground."
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was angry about losing and furious that a rule he fought to loosen was involved.
Jones spent nearly a decade on the competition committee pushing for players to do whatever they want to rile up the fans. He lavished big contracts on Sanders, then Owens, for their theatrics as well as their talents.
"I really don't think somebody falling down was an intended consequence of this rule," Jones said. "When you draw those bright lines, you'll have calls or decisions that in the grand scheme of things that weren't right or weren't fair to the overall game, and that was one of them."
Touchdown celebrations were pretty innocuous in the days of Johnson's knee-knocking ritual with those white shoes. Then cable networks came along and began immortalizing such routines, so suddenly everyone seemed to be doing it.
League bosses didn't like that, not in a team sport, and they couldn't allow such look-at-me individuality.
The crackdown began in 1984, targeting Gastineau's "sack dance" and prompting cries of the NFL being the "No Fun League." Every time a loophole gets exposed, the rules get tightened. The do's and don'ts for celebrations are located in the taunting section of the rule book.
In recent years, the league banned props (such as pens, pylons and pompons), "prolonged, excessive premeditated or choreographed" routines and — as everyone now knows — going to the ground. There are exceptions, like spiking the ball or jumping into the stands, a la the Lambeau Leap.
"It's an emotional game and you can show emotion," Fisher said. "But there were things that were getting out of hand."
Colombo wasn't probing for loopholes. In fact, Pereira said it was cool to see a skill position player letting a beefy blocker have some fun.
"That's the act of sportsmanship the league is looking for," Pereira said.
Colombo and the Cowboys should've known better from T.O.'s tenure.
In 2006, Owens was flagged for pretending to take a nap after a touchdown. In 2008, the NFL nabbed him for going to the ground when he dropped into a track stance as part of a tribute to Usain Bolt.
Jets right tackle Damien Woody is among those who learned from Colombo's mistake.
"I didn't even know that was a penalty," he said.
Of course, Woody and the Jets have had fun with it, too, coming up with ways to celebrate and warning, "Just make sure you don't fall down."
More teasing is coming the next time Woody sees Colombo, a fellow Boston College product: "I'm going to tell him, 'Hey, be more of an athlete. Stay on your feet.'"
AP Sports Writers Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., and Dennis Waszak Jr. in Florham Park, N.J., contributed.