Jahlani Tavai’s reaction said it all.
Until it didn’t.
And once again, NFL officiating is a hot topic for all the wrong reasons.
Yes, the Patriots earned plenty of happy talking points after their Thursday night win in Pittsburgh, a 21-18 decision over the Steelers that broke a five-game losing streak. And yes, they deserve every bit of joy that surrounded the tough road win. For an offense that finally woke up under the guidance of Bailey Zappe, for a defense that continues to hold firm and cause turnovers, and for a coach who added another victory to his near record-breaking career total.
But a crucial call by officials late in the fourth quarter also has to be talked about, given how much it confused players on the field as well as announcers in the booth, and how much of an impact it had on the game. With just more than five minutes remaining and the Patriots trying to hold their lead, what initially appeared to be an offsides infraction by Tavai was called a false start on Steelers long snapper Christian Kuntz, turning what would have been a first down for the driving Steelers into a change of possession.
There was Tavai, holding both hands to the side of his helmet, thinking he’d just jumped too soon and extended the late Steelers possession. There was Steelers punter Pressley Harvin whooping it up, believing his services were no longer needed. There was the Amazon broadcast team of Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit talking in agreement, expecting Pittsburgh to get the first down.
None of them saw it like the officials, who flagged Kuntz for moving first. Replays showed Kuntz lifting his head, but amid the boos raining down from the home crowd and the immediate outrage across the internet, it’s clear there was no consensus that it should have been considered a penalty.
A quick sampling:
From rules expert Terry McAulay on the broadcast: “So they’re saying [Kuntz] made a quick and abrupt movement prior to the snap. I don’t see this as quick and abrupt. Obviously, it’s subjective. This looks like the normal movement that we see from a long snapper. I think this should have been on the defense.”
From Herbstreit: “You see that almost every time on a snap and it’s never called. I think that’s a bad call.”
From Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, after the game: “I was given an explanation. I don’t know if I agree with it, but I was given an explanation.”
From Kuntz, at his locker: “I thought I moved my head up when he jumped offsides. I don’t think I moved it before. I thought it was a first down for us . . . No abrupt movement is the rule so they must have thought I moved my head abruptly. I don’t think I moved my head until he jumped offsides.”
From J.J. Watt, on social media: “That is how every single long snapper in the NFL moves their head.”
From Steelers QB Mitch Trubisky: “I just watched the Patriots player’s reaction and you could see that he felt like he was offsides. So to me it seemed like that he was, just based on his reaction. Kuntz didn’t seem like he did anything different to me, but we don’t talk about that.”
This is not to suggest the call determined the outcome of the game. No one call ever does. The Steelers’ offense, much like it has all season, struggled all night. Trubisky totaled only 190 yards in the air despite 35 pass attempts (22 completions), and Jabrill Peppers intercepted him in the first half.
They were only at their own 38-yard line when the controversial call was made, so who’s to say they would have even capitalized on a new set of downs? But with more than five minutes remaining and needing only a field goal to tie, it sure looked like they were going to get the chance.
The bigger shame of a call like that is the shadow it casts. Not just over one play in one game, but over the larger conversation about inconsistent and inexplicable officiating across the entire league. It feels like there are major head-scratchers every week, from phantom roughing-the-passer calls to debatable pass interference whistles. From mistakes about going out of bounds to questions of completing a football play.
While making more plays reviewable by instant replay might be an answer, the idea of extending game time to do that isn’t appealing either. Maybe, it has to happen.
There are so many threats to fans’ trust in the game’s integrity, starting all the way at the top of a league in partnership with the gambling entities it once professed to abhor. Controversial calls only add fuel to those fires.
The Patriots got the benefit of one Thursday night, but football at large shouldn’t consider itself so lucky.