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Analysis: Could Tre’Davious White have risked the Buffalo Bills’ win with a safety?

Let’s extrapolate what could’ve happened if the referees had called a safety.

At the end of Sunday’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals, cornerback Tre’Davious White came down with a diving interception to seal a win for the Buffalo Bills. Celebrating the game-winning play, White ran with his teammates through the end zone. However, it could be argued that he’d just committed a safety. In fact, head coach Sean McDermott made that a point of emphasis to his team following the win, according to Micah Hyde (speaking on WGR550’s radio program). McDermott made it clear to his players that they should ensure the play is over before celebrating.

Was White’s celebration a major mistake? Could it have actually put the Bills’ win in jeopardy? Let’s break it down and see what was at stake.


First, let’s understand the game situation: The Bills intercepted Andy Dalton to preserve a 21-17 lead and the win. However, White was never touched after falling to the ground, instead standing up, running back toward the end zone, mobbed by teammates. White eventually stepped out the back of the end zone and started celebrating near the stands.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor was visibly apoplectic at that point, screaming to the officials that White had just committed a safety, and that gameplay should continue.

After conferring, the referees ruled that White “gave himself up” as a runner when he fell to the ground initially and then began celebrating. That’s a valid interpretation, and not something that would be overturned (especially since coaches cannot challenge judgment calls like that, certainly not in the final two minutes of the game). However, a harsher official could’ve perceived White’s actions differently and ruled the opposite, in an equally-binding fashion.

So, could White have changed the outcome? I recorded the final interception from the Bills-Bengals game, to see if Taylor’s yelling had any substance to it. I recorded the broadcast recording at 24 frames per second, which gives a pretty strong estimation of where the game clock would stand (since the broadcast footage stopped the clock when the whistle blew).

Based on my recording, White casually strolls into the end zone, but does not step out of the end zone until a point where the game clock would read five, maybe six seconds remaining.

What would happen next?

Say the officials confer and decide that, yes, White committed a safety. The following would happen:

  • The score becomes 21-19, Bills. Buffalo has the lead, but Cincinnati can now win with a field goal.
  • By rule, the Bills must kick a “free kick” to the Bengals from their 20-yard line. This is a kickoff without a tee, usually a drop kick.
  • If the returner attempted to return the kick, the clock would start running once he began moving. It would stop when he ended the play, and start running once the Bengals ran a play from scrimmage.
  • Cincinnati would have the ball with one timeout, and six seconds remaining.

How could the Bengals win?

First of all is the question of the Bengals returning the free kick. I’d argue they wouldn’t attempt it, to avoid running any clock.

Then where would they start their drive? I examined the three safeties so far this year to get some context. Buffalo, Tampa, and Cleveland all had one.

The first kick landed on the “far” 41-yard line (where “near” would be the side with the uprights to kick through). The second kick on the “far” 46-yard line. The final kick on the “far” 40-yard line.

Either way, the Bengals would be starting their drive on the far side of the field. Kicker Randy Bullock’s career long, by the way, is 55 yards, but in the past two seasons he’s 2-of-6 on kicks greater than 50 yards. To kick his career long, the Bengals would need to reach the “near” 37-yard line. In the best case scenario, that’s a 17-yard gain before the kick.

Now, the Bengals have one chance to gain 17 yards in four seconds, so they can call timeout and have Bullock attempt a kick he hasn’t made since 2014, something with 33 percent odds at best. Could they try a back-shoulder throw to John Ross and set that up? Maybe, but I think the odds they’d finish the play that quickly are pretty terrible.

The other possibility is that the Bengals could forget the field goal and try a Hail Mary for the win. They’d need a 60-yard pass play—not inconceivable, but still not likely.

In conclusion

Tre’Davious White’s post-interception actions did not create a safety, despite Zac Taylor’s complaints, because the officials ruled him as “down” and their word is final. However, the officials could’ve ruled a different way and it would’ve been a reasonable judgment.

Had White been called for a safety, the wind would’ve definitely escaped the stadium in a hurry. That being said, Cincinnati’s chances for winning would’ve only increased from zero to some very small percentage. They’d still need one or two miracle plays in five seconds to find themselves with a lead at the end of the game. This was a good teaching moment for Sean McDermott’s team, but it definitely wasn’t a game-changing risk.