When Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders suddenly dropped to the turf late in the fourth quarter, was helped to the sideline, returned after missing one play, then managed to be the first player down the field on punt coverage, announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth let NBC's audience know their feelings.
"Man," Michaels said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "I'm sure glad Sanders is OK."
In a similar tone, Collinsworth chimed in: "It's a miracle."
Both chuckled. More guffaws and hearty mocking of Sanders came from ESPN's talking heads on a "C'mon Man!" segment a couple of days later.
Safe to say the NFL doesn't consider this a laughing matter: The league told Sanders it wants to chat about what happened in that Sunday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals. When a reporter asked Sanders this week whether he really had a cramp against the Bengals, he didn't answer directly, saying: "We're going to speak on it when we get to New York."
At least one of the Bengals, safety Chris Crocker, was hardly bothered by the tactic.
"'If you're not cheating, you're not trying,' I guess, is the old saying," Crocker said. "So if you can slow the game down, why not?"
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis didn't really want to touch the topic, other than to say he thinks "it's generally a rare occasion."
All 32 teams' general managers and head coaches were sent a memo back in September by Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, reminding them, "The Competition Committee deprecates feigning injuries, with subsequent withdrawal, to obtain a timeout without penalty. Coaches are urged to cooperate in discouraging this practice."
The league could fine coaches, players or clubs — or it could decide to take away draft picks. No one has been punished yet for faking an injury.
According to the memo, the "Competition Committee has reviewed this issue several times, but has been reluctant to propose a specific rule, since assessing a charged timeout for every injury timeout would deprive a team of timeouts for strategic purposes. It also could encourage injured players to remain in the game at risk to themselves to avoid incurring a charged team timeout."
It's a football strategy that's been around for years, in college and the pros: A player fakes an injury, stopping the clock — maybe it saves a timeout; maybe it slows an opponent's no-huddle offense.
As a receiver with the Bengals in the 1980s, Collinsworth grew accustomed to seeing opposing defenses have players pretend to be hurt.
"It would almost get to where you would laugh about it. It was ridiculous," he said in a telephone interview. "Everybody on the field — including the referees — knew what they were doing."
There have been other such episodes this fall, including when Washington Redskins defensive lineman Kedric Golston mysteriously went down on a play against a no-huddle offense, then came back in the game. In college, Wyoming coach Dave Christensen chewed out Air Force coach Troy Calhoun — earning a suspension and fine — after the Falcons' backup quarterback came in and ran for the winning score in place of a starter who went down on the field, saving a timeout.
Similar situations arise every so often. Last season, for example, the St. Louis Rams thought a New York Giants player faked an injury to slow down their offense. In college, after California limited high-octane Oregon to 15 points in 2010, Cal defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi was suspended for a game after acknowledging he instructed a player to fake an injury.
There doesn't really appear a way to prevent it.
"Referees certainly don't want that burden of having to determine who's healthy and who's not. They're having a hard enough time with the concussion issue right now. And really, on almost any play, when you get right down to it, you could lie on the ground and say you have a concussion, and who the heck is going to say anything to that? So as long as teams are willing to do it, there's nothing really that I know of that can stop them," Collinsworth said.
"The only way you're ever going to get around it is in cases that appear to be fairly obvious," he said. "You fine the teams an escalating amount of money and find out just how valuable those timeouts really are. You get a $100,000 fine for faking an injury, you're probably not going to take any more of those fake timeouts."
Whether or not Sanders really was dealing with debilitating cramps, he caught the league's attention.
"It was fairly obvious what was going on," Collinsworth said. "Every team has a signal: 'Time to fake an injury.' And why not?"
The AP spoke to a handful of players around the league who said their team doesn't have such a signal — but players also indicated they didn't think that sort of formal instruction was necessary.
"Some guys are smart and just know when to do it," Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said.
"Everybody does it," Alexander added, "so it's not like, 'Aw, they're cheating.'"
AP Sports Writers Will Graves, Joe Kay and Joseph White, AP National Writer Eddie Pells and AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton contributed to this report.
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