New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was not happy about the penalty that allowed the New York Jets to grab an extra first down and eventually re-try a winning field goal in overtime on Sunday, but the coach has nobody to blame but himself for Nick Folk's successful 42-yard try that gave the Jets a 30-27 victory.
For those not in the know, the Patriots were originally lined up at their own 38-yard line, as Folk attempted a 58-yarder that veered to the left. Rookie defensive lineman Chris Jones was flagged for unnecessary roughness on the play because he pushed a teammate toward the line of scrimmage to help block the try. The Jets were spotted 15 yards on the penalty, lost a yard total on three subsequent rushing plays and then, they put the dagger in.
"The call was for pushing," Belichick said after the game. "We weren’t on the second level when we pushed him."
Not so fast, Coach. According to Rule 9, Section 1, Article 3 of the 2013 NFL Rule Book, what Jones did was outside the rules, and that rule was changed for the 2013 season:
Defensive Team Formation
(a) When Team A presents a punt, field-goal, or Try Kick formation, a Team B player, who is within one yard of the line of scrimmage, must have his entire body outside the snapper’s shoulder pads at the snap.
(b) When Team A presents a field-goal or Try Kick formation:
(1) No more than six Team B players may be on the line of scrimmage on either side of the snapper at the snap; and
Note: These restrictions do not apply if a team does not present a standard punt, field goal, or Try Kick formation (an equal number of players on the line of scrimmage on either side of the snapper in a tight formation), or if, after the offensive team has assumed a set position, there is a shift, or a player goes in motion.
Penalty: For illegal formation by the defense: Loss of five yards.
(2) Team B players cannot push teammates on the line of scrimmage into the offensive formation.
Penalty: For unnecessary roughness: Loss of 15 yards.
Belichick believed that Jones was in the right because he was at the line of scrimmage when the play went off, but the change in rule reflects a safety concern that actually came from the players' side. Washington Redskins offensive lineman Will Montgomery says that he brought the problem to the attention of the Competition Committee after he was hurt on a field goal try against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 23, 2012.
"I actually pulled my hamstring because it root-hogged my legs out from underneath me. I did the splits, and I usually can't do the splits," Montgomery told FOX Sports' Mike Garafolo on Sunday evening. "I'm like, 'Man, this is BS.' That was the genesis of the rule change."
The tape doesn't really jibe, however. The Redskins tried one field goal in the game -- a 36-yarder by Billy Cundiff with 36 seconds left in the first half of Cincinnati's 38-31 win. On the play, there are two Bengals defenders behind the line, but they both clearly drop back at the snap. Montgomery, playing two gaps to the right of the long-snapper, received light contact on the play and walked off the field. Per the league's official participation chart, he played in all 73 of the Redskins' snaps that day. He played all 76 snaps against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the following week's game, as well.
We're probably quibbling, though. According to Pro Football Talk, Montgomery brought video evidence of a field goal try in which players were pushed across the line to gain advantage ,and that prompted the league to change the rule. We wouldn't be surprised if there were several examples of teams looking to get around the former rule. And Montgomery's a tough guy -- he played in all but six of Washington's snaps in the 2012 regular season.
So, back to the Jets-Patriots drama, which had a couple of precedents.
As Albert Breer of the NFL Network reported, the Baltimore Ravens got away with a push in their Week 5 win over the Miami Dolphins. Miami kicker Caleb Sturgis missed a 57-yard attempt wide left with 38 seconds left in the game, which gave Baltimore its 26-23 win after one Joe Flacco kneel-down. It didn't affect the play, but you can clearly see defensive lineman Chris Canty (No. 99 below) pushing the line from the second level.
Breer was told by two sources that the Dolphins turned that tape of that play into the league, and the league admitted it should have made the call against the Ravens -- which would have given Miami a new set of downs. At that point, NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino sent out a video re-explaining the rule, and specifying that game officials would keep a sharper eye out for such tactics.
This didn't dissuade the Patriots from giving it more than one shot.
New England's 30-27 Week 6 win over the New Orleans Saints featured a play very much like the one that got the Pats flagged against the Jets. With 2:44 left in the game, Saints kicker Garrett Hartley tried a 39-yard field goal, and the same two characters -- defensive lineman Chris Jones and offensive lineman Will Svitek -- were involved as Jones pushed Svitek into the scrum. The Saints were criticized for the clock management that let New England overtake them as time ran out (and justifiably so), but one wonders what the Saints would have done with 15 yards and a new set of downs at that point.
And then, there was the flagged play itself, which Belichick admitted that he misunderstood the next day.
"Because obviously we are wrong," the coach said, when he asked why he didn't get the rule change. "What else is there to say? We’re wrong ... Look, it’s our job to understand the rules. Whatever the bottom line is, we didn’t do it properly. So, what else is there to say?"
After the game, Jets head coach Rex Ryan appeared to be unaware of the technicalities of the penalty, but one wonders if Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan warned his twin brother about New England's tactics.
"The coaches watch every single play of every single game, so we’re aware of the opponents' tendencies and everything else," Rex said on Monday. "My comments with the officials, I’ll just leave that way."
Well, there was one thing left to say on Tuesday, when Belichick was asked again about the play. Before his standard "We're moving on to [insert next opponent here]" response, he dropped a little bomb on a conference call with the Miami media.
"Well, I mean, since they [the Jets] were using the play themselves, I don’t even know about all that."
Upon further review, it does appear that the Jets may have engaged in similar subterfuge. With 19 seconds left in regulation, Pats kicker Stephen Gostkowski booted a 44-yard game-tying field goal, and it certainly looks as if linebacker Quinton Coples pushed defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson into the breach. This was not a flagged play, perhaps because the Pats had not alerted the refs to pay attention to the rule they were, you know, supposed to watch.
Former Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff, now an ESPN Radio analyst and occasional contributor to TheMMQB.com, told ESPN's Rich Cimini that New England's version of the gambit was pretty transparent.
"I watched the tape. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes," Westhoff said. "I can't prove this -- I don't know what they teach -- but those guys are pretty sharp up there [in New England]. I can't imagine them running a technique and not being aware of it. In my opinion, it was coached, taught and implemented that very way. I think they did it on purpose and got caught."
It took long enough, and more than enough warnings, but it seems that the NFL's officials have finally come on board regarding a rule that has been a point of focus since before the season began.