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Monday, October 17, 2011
Let's rewrite NFL postgame handshake protocol

By Melissa Jacobs

As evidenced by Sunday's postgame brouhaha between 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Lions coach Jim Schwartz, a fiery winner and fiery loser don't mix well. The incident overshadowed a gritty game played by two teams nobody expected to be 5-1. In fact, its reverberations have already caused the ever-popular discussion topics known as Tony Romo and Tim Tebow to finally lose a little steam. OK, maybe not Tebow.

Let's be clear: Harbaugh was wrong for approaching Schwartz as if he were a 49ers assistant coach primed for a celebratory beer. Schwartz was wrong for asking a not-so-friendly question that rhymes with "Cut the duck?" and subsequently chasing Harbaugh down in hopes of an impromptu MMA match.

However, the NFL is a league built on adrenaline and emotion that affects more than just the players. A gut-wrenching win or devastating loss can shift a team's momentum for weeks, or even decide its season. Any game can be that monumental.

So why is there a "protocol" that dictates head coaches must shake hands within 20 seconds of the clock expiring? Why not give them time to simmer down?

Think about what Sunday meant for both squads. Harbaugh's 49ers overcame a strip sack on their first offensive play, plus a season-high 15 penalties, rallying late in the fourth quarter to beat a previously undefeated Detroit team in its home stadium, one of the loudest in the NFL. Schwartz's Lions got dealt the other end, and the loss exposed many of their weaknesses -- and unleashed the doubts of their tormented fan base. This was a game changer for both sides.

If these coaches had just a few minutes on their respective sidelines, Sunday's postgame handshake could have very well been amicable. Harbaugh's fists may have tired from pumping and he would have realized the man he was approaching was actually Schwartz, and not Alex Smith's dad. Schwartz's dejection may have turned into a glass-half-full perspective of being 5-1 and undefeated in the NFC North.

Sportsmanship is important, and I'm in no way saying it has no place in the postgame. But a forced handshake at a time when the opposing head coach is the last guy in the world you want to see is unnatural and unnecessary. Do the handshake. Just wait a minute or two. Heck, networks could even do it the NFL way, branding it as a special ceremony and making the coaches slap a sponsor on their hands before running to the middle of the field. Or they could follow the Josh McDaniels/Bill Belichick method of agreeing in advance to conduct the handshake in the locker room and -- gasp -- actually catch up and reflect. Of course this too became an issue because of the lack of "protocol."

The specific brand of raw emotion emanating from the NFL is what makes the league so attractive. Can you imagine the onslaught of fighting that would ensue if opposing players were forced to line up, give weak high-fives and say "good game" within seconds of a critical win or loss? NFL head coaches are merely extensions of their players, most former players themselves.

Let them have a cooling-off period -- and be thankful they need one.