Brad Childress should have warned me.
Riding in a golf cart with the Vikings coach after a training camp practice, Childress went off on what seemed like a wild tangent about tipped balls. To him they were some kind of Da Vinci Code secret indicator. They were the death knell of an offense. Who tips them? Why do they tip them? Where and how do they tip them? At one point, he became so animated we nearly clipped a security guard on the way to the Vikes' dorm.
(Which, I told him, would have been really good for my story.)
Better than tipped balls, anyway.
I mean, you can just imagine what I was thinking: "I've come all the way to the middle of Minnesota and subjected myself to stifling heat, Koren Robinson on the roadways and a motel room infested with fleas (honest) -- all to learn about tipped balls, a part of the game that's so critical no one other than Childress even bothers to keep track of them. Thanks, Coach."
But, as usual, Childress was on to something. He's a details guy. He believes the games are all won and lost by an inch here or an inch there. And so every time there was a tipped ball in camp, he made a whole production out of it, clapping his hands, shouting, taking guys aside, lecturing anyone who would listen just how bad tipped balls were for an offense.
Childress even worked up a massive PowerPoint presentation on tipped balls and sprang it on the team at an evening meeting. "Listen, everybody has the same plays in the NFL in some way shape or form," he told me. "They might call it something different, like 999 Backs Flat and for us it might be Fox Double Two Go, but it's the same play. So it's the tiny details that separate the good teams from the teams just running lines in their playbook."
So I decided to play along. I started taking note of tipped balls. I sought the opinion of Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. Besides being the wizard behind Carson Palmer, Rudi Johnson and Chad Johnson, Brat wears shorts to practice even when it's 20 below, which, in my book, makes him a football authority.
I asked him, Are tipped balls really that big of a deal, like the death knell of an offense or something?
"I'd agree with that," he replied. "A tipped ball slows the speed of the ball significantly, and with all the time and energy we all spend holding onto and controlling the ball, it's one of the few times during a game that the ball is actually up for grabs, like a rebound in basketball. It's a scary deal to watch. I actually find myself holding my breath until the ball hits the ground. It can be that important, that much of a game-changer."
No, it's not an official stat, but I like that and so should you because you're not a stat geek hiding in your parents' basement; you understand and appreciate the organic, random beauty of the tipped ball. How, in a league where every last superfluous hip shimmy from every spontaneous celebration is legislated, calibrated and castigated, tipped balls are a rare moment when, despite all the obsessive planning, rules and practice, any-damn-thing can still happen?
The pass comes out, the ball gets tipped and it just floats in the air like a soap bubble caught in the wind while time is suspended as 22 snarling giants swarm to recapture it.
Tipped balls -- OK, let's just call them TBs so you can all stop giggling and making crude Congressional page jokes, This is FOOTBALL, people, and dang it all, it's serious! -- are everywhere, and they mean everything. For real. Games often are won by the team that gets one or two more scoring opportunities, right? Hence, the importance of turnover margin. (How important? Well, 10 of the 11 teams with the best turnover ratio in 2005 made the playoffs, OK, smarty pants?)
And tipped balls -- sorry -- and TBs are like the hail that falls before a tornado hits.
Only now I'm getting pelted by them every week. I see them everywhere. It's amazing, really. It's like I've begun channeling Childress referencing Eddie Vedder while misquoting Meher Baba: Tipped balls are nothing, but sometimes nothing really is everything.
Check it out.
Monday night in Denver, defensive lineman Gerard Warren drops back into the shallow flat, reaches up and tips a Steve McNair pass. Game over. In the loser-should-go-to-the-CFL-challenge, SanFran LB Manny Lawson gets his paws on a pass Walt Harris picks off. Game over. Falcons LB Michael Boley tips a Cardinals pass to DeAngelo Hall, who returns it 36 yards for a TD. The Bears set the tone early against the Seahawks when Ricky Manning Jr. tips a Matt Hasselbeck pass to himself and bolts up the sideline with it. Washington corner Kenny Wright tips a pick to defensive end Phillip Daniels in the win over Jax. Last week, Browns wideout Dennis Northcutt tips an early pass up in the air that Carolina corner Richard Marshall returns for a TD. Game over, man, game over.
Sure, everyone wants to make such a big deal about what a game-changing impact Reggie Bush is having in New Orleans while No. 1 pick Mario Williams struggles in Houston. Well, the Texans held on to beat the Dolphins in Week 4, 17-15, thanks to a tipped ball by Williams on a two-point conversion. "I was just in the right place at the right time," he said.
Tipped balls aren't random. Anything but. In fact, part of their beauty (I told you I was obsessed) is the way they seem to connect to everything in the game. Did you know teams actually practice tipped balls? Did you know the reason running backs are taught to block blitzers low is because their natural reaction will be to drop their hands? Did you know that the prototype size for a QB is 6-foot-4 to 6-5 partly because this makes the release point of the ball less likely to get tipped? Did you know that the West Coast offense is the most susceptible to the TB because it uses a lot of dink and dunk passes just over the line of scrimmage?
By my estimation, 80 percent of the time, tipped balls really are a death knell for the offense. 'Cause if they get picked, they're often returned all the way for a 14-point swing. And if they're not picked, they are almost always an incomplete pass because the receiver's momentum carries him away from the ball while a handful of defenders are coming toward it. The only saving grace is that most guys play DB because they can't catch the ball.
Sometimes, though, TBs come down into the hands of linemen, and we can all admit there's nothing spit-your-bratwurst-at-the-TV-funnier than fat guys running with the football. In Week 1, Ravens linebacker Bart Scott tipped a Chris Simms pass that 340-pound tackle Haloti Ngata swallowed into the folds of his prodigious belly and Stay Puft Marshmallow Manned it 60 yards downfield.
TBs also can fly backward and into the arms of the quarterback. (Serves 'em right, I guess.) This is always good for a few chuckles in the No Fun League. Brad Johnson is known for many things: He's one of the most accurate passers in NFL history and has gone a record 10 seasons with a completion percentage above 60 percent. But the one thing he'll be telling his grandkids about is the time, in 1997 while playing the Panthers, when a TB allowed him to become the only person in NFL history to complete a touchdown pass to himself.
A TB TD, if you will. That's pretty cool, Grandpa, now tell us again what Lindsay Lohan was like before she became secretary of state.
What I especially like about TBs is how they send all these tightly wound control freak coaches over the deep end by forcing them to submit to the randomness of the universe. Remember that New York-Dallas "Monday Night Football" game in 1984? (Of course you don't, you were, like, 1 at the time, but work with me here.) Well, Giants quarterback Phil Simms threw a pick that resulted in a little tiff with Bill Parcells on the sideline that was even more nasty than it looked on tape.
What were they arguing over? Well, in part, it was whether the ball had been tipped by a lineman. Simms has since admitted that it was an ugly exchange and that he became the hero of his teammates who were far too timid to stand up to The Tuna.
TBs run in the family, I guess, because despite all his outward confidence before the season, Tampa coach Jon Gruden knew Chris Simms had a problem with this back in training camp. Younger quarterbacks tend to telegraph their passes, which can lead to TBs. Their technique also tends to disintegrate with fatigue, causing the ball to come out sidearm instead of over the ear, and that extra 6 inches can mean everything.
Whatever Simms was doing, it worried Gruden so much he had someone build a contraption out of PVC piping that coaches held up at the line of scrimmage that would simulate a 7-foot defender. The Bucs even dressed it in a Rod Coleman jersey.
Didn't work. In Week 2, the Falcons tipped four balls at the line of scrimmage, causing Gruden to say, "The tipped passes, the interceptions, they're killing us."
Well, gee, Coach, that's just a little bit dramatic, isn't it?
It's just a tipped ball.
I mean, don't you just hate people who obsess over the tiniest little things like that?
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book was "Noah's Rainbow: a Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter." His next book, based on the controversial 1925 NFL Pottsville Maroons (ESPN Books 2007) has been optioned as a movie by Sentinel Entertainment. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.