The chief problem with unwritten rules is that they're not written down. Until Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with two inscribed tablets, man could plead ignorance while coveting his neighbor's ox. "Was that wrong?" as George Costanza asked his boss after a desktop rendezvous with the cleaning woman. "Should I have not done that? If I had known that sort of thing was frowned upon ..."
Costanza came to mind on Sunday at the Meadowlands when Tampa Bay Bucs coach Greg Schiano had his defense bull rush the Giants offensive line while quarterback Eli Manning took a knee in the waning seconds of the game. NFL coaches have a longstanding "rule" against such behavior, but that rule is unwritten, and rules aren't really rules until they're literally chiseled in stone.
Who knew, for instance, that the NFL would rather not have its officials openly root for a team they're officiating? The league pulled replacement ref Brian Stropolo from the Saints-Panthers game three hours before kickoff on Sunday after learning that the side judge, a resident of New Orleans, was a passionate Saints fan, to judge by his Facebook page, which featured photographs of him tailgating in full team regalia. If the ref had known that sort of thing was frowned upon ...
But he never got it in writing. The movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn said, "A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's printed on." And the same goes for unwritten rules. But that's a problem easily solved. To avoid future misunderstandings, I've put many of football's unwritten rules on paper, or at least onto the Internet. Coaches, players, reporters and officials, please print and laminate to a wristband:
• Officials should not proudly proclaim a favorite team, especially in games they're refereeing. You might be in violation of this rule if: The flag you've thrown is a Terrible Towel. You signal first down with an oversized foam finger. You study a replay and announce: "Upon further review, Tom Brady is a dreamboat."
• Do not bull rush the quarterback who has taken a knee. In fact, common sense says don't bull rush anybody who has taken a knee, because that person can only be (1) proposing marriage, (2) salting away a victory or (3) Tebowing. (Possibly all three, in the case of the Jets' backup quarterback.)
• Never chastise the opposing coach -- in front of a live television audience, in the postgame handshake spectacle -- for violating the preceding rule. In baseball, this is called "showing him up," and it is a worse sin than ox-coveting.
• Never ask Bill Belichick his reason for doing something. (For instance: "Why doesn't Wes Welker start anymore?") Whatever Belichick does on a football field is, ipso facto, the right thing to do. And anyway, the coach's explanation will not illuminate his way of thinking, but rather shine a light on the folly of your question. The brilliant mind is like a desert horizon, never drawing nearer, no matter how fast you speed toward it.
• While receivers are entitled to celebrate touchdowns by dunking the football over the crossbar, defenders may not attempt to impede them in any way. No one knows why this is so; it's just the way it goes. So don't try to take a charge, or worse still, to force the would-be dunker to the perimeter, where he'll have to settle for a mid-range jump shot. We don't have time for any of this.
• Receivers: You are allowed to simply hand the ball to an official after scoring. If that official then produces a Sharpie and asks you to sign the ball in question, you are required to decline.
• If a player is estranged from the college he attended, he may claim a fictional alma mater during televised introductions. But that fictional alma mater is required to be, in every instance, the "School of Hard Knocks." Players may not claim to have graduated from "Altered State," "Whatsamatta U" or "South Harmon Institute of Technology."
• There are rules of etiquette, heretofore unwritten, that all must adhere to when "under the pile." They go like this: My nostrils are not the finger holes on a bowling ball -- kindly refrain from using them as such. Please don't employ my sternum as leverage when rising to your feet. (It's bad enough when airline passengers lever themselves up by my seatback when getting up to use the john, turning me into a catapulted projectile.) There are other rules, but if you just remember the following children's books you'll always be in compliance: Hands Are Not For Hitting and Teeth Are Not For Biting and Groins Are Not For Kneeing.