Late in the Dallas Cowboys' 22-9 loss to the New York Giants on Sunday, coach Jimmy Johnson nudged team owner Jerry Jones on the sideline in search of support.
Still fuming over several questionable officiating calls during the long, dark afternoon in the Meadowlands, Johnson said, "I want to speak out."
"I concurred," Jones said yesterday, "that he should speak out."
What ensued was a 10-minute tirade that blistered referee Gordon McCarter's crew for ineptness. Johnson called it "the worst officiated game I've ever seen in my life," and when he ended the orchestrated tantrum, he fully expected a hefty fine from the NFL.
To his surprise, none was forthcoming as the Cowboys prepared for Sunday's trip to RFK Stadium to play the Washington Redskins.
In a league that is quick to stamp out aberrant behavior, Johnson was let off the hook as a first-time offender. It was a development that arched eyebrows around the league, but it was in keeping with NFL policy.
"If you've been a good boy, they'll let you be a bad boy once," said Atlanta Falcons coach Jerry Glanville, whose NFL image fits his black wardrobe.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's prompt decision not to fine Johnson this time raised a question of whether it also didn't confirm Johnson's angry charge of poor officiating. Yesterday, the league denied the no-fine move was an admission of guilt.
"We're not saying he's right or wrong," said league spokesman Greg Aiello.
"In Jimmy's case, he and his staff have been very professional in this area until now. It was viewed as a first-time offense. Standard procedure for that kind of situation results in a warning. [But] it's not automatically a warning the first time. It's a judgment call by the commissioner."
Standard fare for this type of conduct draws a $7,500 fine. Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche reportedly drew the limit for charging onto the field during a Monday night game at Buffalo last Oct. 21 to protect an official's call. And Bills coach Marv Levy reportedly picked up a $5,000 fine for making an obscene gesture at an official, a gesture that was captured by the TV camera in an Oct. 7 Monday night game at Kansas City. Neither the Bengals, the Bills, nor the league would confirm that those coaches have been fined this season, however.
The Associated Press reported that Glanville had been tagged with a fine for harassing officials. But he denied it.
"I've never said anything against the officials," he said. "I've never been reprimanded [for that], never been fined. . . . I'm fortunate they never got a piece of my butt."
Glanville said he had been threatened with a fine a year ago after he called his Houston Oilers successor, Jack Pardee, a "total jerk."
Asked whether he felt the NFL's system of punishment was fair, Glanville said, "Nobody ever said the NFL was fair or easy. It's not. [But] you obey the rules or start your own league."
Giants general manager George Young said he felt Tagliabue's call was consistent with league policy.
"I would say [league officials] tend not to do that to first offenders," said Young. "That way, they put everybody on notice. Somebody loses it one time, they're put on notice. I don't think Jimmy's been a big offender. He was annoyed. It was a tight game for him. I think continued behavior like that is uncalled for."
The NFL has a standing gag order on criticizing officials.
"Public criticism can undermine the integrity of officials," Aiello explained. "There's no need for it because we have internal mechanisms. After those public criticisms, those coaches are often wrong, but the damage is done."
Tagliabue attended Sunday's game at Giants Stadium, but Aiello said he had not talked with Jerry Seeman, the league's director of officials, or looked at tapes before rendering his decision.