Time for players to hit rule book

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's time for NFL players to study the rule book as closely as they study their playbooks.

Last year, it was Leon Lett's gaffe in touching a blocked field goal that cost the Dallas Cowboys a Thanksgiving Day game against the Miami Dolphins.

Last Sunday, the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams topped that.

They forgot a punt is a live ball until it is downed or the whistle blows when it stops moving.

They were wandering on and off the field after a Saints' punt to the end zone -- not realizing the play hadn't ended -- while the Rams' Robert Bailey, who grabbed the ball when it took an odd backward hop after it appeared to be heading out of the end zone, was running 103 yards for a touchdown.

It had to be the most bizarre play of the first half of the season.

As it turned out, the Saints still beat the Rams, 37-34, so it didn't affect the final result, but the oddsmakers who took the Saints and gave 3 1/2 points had to be gritting their teeth.

"Wayne [Sevier], our special teams coach, goes over that play almost every day," Bailey said. "I always remember that he says, 'If the ball's not touched, then you can run with it.' "

The Saints insisted to no avail that they had heard a whistle on the fourth-quarter play.

As it turned out, the play should have been illegal because both teams had too many men on the field.

The play should have ended where the double foul occurred. Since Bailey was at about the 15 when the players started onto the field, the play should have ended there.

Referee Johnny Grier admitted after the game that "an illegal participation may have been overlooked."

The videotape confirmed it was overlooked, but with the special teams players coming off the field, it was difficult for the officials to be sure the teams had more than 11 players on the field at one time. It was a fire drill of a play.

In another strange twist, Bailey had decided he wasn't going to play in the game after his pregnant wife called him at 2 a.m. Sunday to tell him she was going into labor in Miami.

Bailey called coach Chuck Knox, woke him up and told him he was leaving. Bailey said Knox wanted him to play, but was supportive of his decision.

Bailey then found out the New Orleans airport was closed until the next morning. The baby arrived at 6:10 a.m., so he decided to play.

But he still regrets he missed the birth.

"When I'm long gone, there will still be people scoring touchdowns," he said. "This is so much more personal, witnessing your baby being born. I am disappointed I couldn't be there."

He arrived at the hospital Monday and brought -- among other things -- a pacifier in the shape of a football for his son. Someday, he can play a videotape of his touchdown run for the child.

Mid-year report

Despite all the free-agent movement, this season seems rather familiar as the teams hit the halfway point.

For the third year in a row, the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers appear to be the two best teams. They meet in two weeks in what is likely to be a preview of the NFC title game.

But the Cowboys got a glimpse of how tough it is to win three straight Super Bowls last week when they lost the best offensive tackle in football, Erik Williams, after he was injured in a car accident last Sunday night. Teams have to avoid misfortune like that to stay on top, and it's difficult to do it three years in a row.

Raiderland

The Los Angeles Raiders organization resembles a room with those strange mirrors in a carnival fun house. Everything is distorted and you can't tell what's real.

The Art Shell-Jeff Hostetler flap has to be understood in that context. It's impossible to know if Shell made a racial slur during his argument with Hostetler, but it's easy to understand how he could snap with the pressure he is put under by Raiders owner Al Davis.

The argument over the offense is much larger than Shell and Hostetler. Davis always wants to run the offense. He ran off Shell's good friend, Terry Robiskie, who's now an assistant coach with the Redskins, and put the offense in charge of one of his old cronies, Tom Walsh. It's an intolerable situation.

Hostetler, though, has nobody else to blame but himself that he wound up in this situation because he signed with the Raiders as a free agent. Ever since Davis -- for reasons that still are unclear -- put Marcus Allen in his doghouse, it's obvious what a carnival the Raiders have become.

Allen fled to Kansas City the minute he got free agency. Players now go to the Raiders at their own risk.

Handicap

The NFL isn't giving the two expansion teams any breaks. Their latest proposal is that teams can put players facing off-season surgery on their list of six players they will make eligible in the stocking pool. The expansion teams can select up to three from each team.

Presumably, these players undergoing surgery will be ready for the 1995 season, but the expansion teams may be stuck with a lot of walking wounded.

Carolina general manager Bill Polian called the proposal "completely unacceptable," but the Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars may not be able to overturn it.

Carolina owner Jerry Richardson may have to revise his prediction that his team can win a Super Bowl in 10 years.

Meanwhile, Richardson still is going to pursue former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs even though Gibbs has rejected the Carolina offer. Richardson hopes to visit with Gibbs around Thanksgiving.

Of Gibbs' previous rejection, Richardson said, "I received it as information, and I didn't accept it."

Gibbs sounds emphatic that he doesn't want to coach in 1995 and this will make the coach Carolina eventually does hire an obvious second choice.

Tightening the rules

After much review, Gene Washington, the league's director of football development, decided Arizona Cardinals linebacker Wilber Marshall didn't violate any rules with his helmet hit that gave Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman a concussion last week. It was legal under current rules because Aikman was out of the pocket and Marshall didn't hit him with the top of his helmet.

The NFL will study whether it should change the rules to make that hit illegal next year. Not only is Cowboys owner Jerry Jones leading the charge, but the NFL has had more than enough serious injuries in recent years. The roll call includes Mike Utley, Dennis Byrd, Al Toon and Merril Hoge. Marshall's technique of leaving his feet and becoming a human missile is too dangerous.

Incidentally, players in two games (Rams-Saints and 49ers-Buccaneers) were ejected for fighting last week. A week after the Deion Sanders-Andre Rison incident, the officials finally were cracking down.

Moving up

The revival of the World League next spring is creating more job opportunities. Bobby Hammond, a running back at Morgan State from 1973-75 and an 11-year NFL assistant coach who is now with the Philadelphia Eagles, has been named head coach of the London Monarchs. It will be Hammond's first shot as a head coach. The league is returning with only European teams after shutting down for two years.

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