On the kickoff to start the second half, DeAndre Carter signaled to his team he wouldn’t be taking the ball out, caught it, then tried tossing it to a ref who allowed the ball to hit the turf. Jaquan Johnson picked it up for a Buffalo Bills touchdown. Until the officiating crew decided Carter had given himself up. Was it the right call?
Let’s refresh our memory on what happened. Here’s a GIF of DeAndre Carter’s actions.
Now let’s discuss the (excited squealing) rules...
Rule 6 of the 2019 NFL Rulebook covers free kicks and is the first section we’ll dive into. The exact thing we need is Rule 6-1-5. This exact part details when a play is considered a touchback like this kick ultimately was declared. There are four options, three of which we can quickly dismiss. If you don’t feel like having another tab open, here they are.
A touchback is declared if the ball:
- touches the ground in the end zone before being touched by the receiving team—Nope, Carter touched it first
- goes out of bounds behind the receiving team’s goal line—No way, Carter clearly has it inbounds
- strikes the receiving team’s goal post, uprights, or cross bar; or—No chance
- is downed in the end zone by the receiving team—That means all we’re left with is this. So, did Carter “down” the ball?
Downed or dead ball
The NFL Rulebook does not contain a definition of “downed.” So that means we need to dig into what generally constitutes downed. Similarly, the refs used the term “gave himself up,” which also does not have a definition in the rulebook. What that leaves us with is the deciding when a play is considered a dead ball aka “The end of a play.”
Let’s jump back to Rule 6 about kickoffs. It has this quote: “A running play begins when the receiving team establishes possession of the ball.” DeAndre Carter established possession very clearly. That means it’s technically a running play and live ball until something else creates a dead ball.
Off to Rule 7, section 2 then which tells us all about dead balls (phrasing). Coincidentally, it’s subpart “d” that’s applicable again. This section outlines when a running player has given himself up. It allows for two options:
- falling to the ground, or kneeling, and clearly making no immediate effort to advance.
- sliding. When a runner slides, the ball is dead the instant he touches the ground with anything other than his hands or his feet.
Not only does Carter not do any of the above, he’s technically advancing the ball by walking forward before flipping it to the ref. Does touching the ref create a dead ball? Glad I asked myself that. the next section specifically indicates that this is not a dead ball situation.
Subpart k of that section does indicate a ball is dead if no one attempts to recover it. The official is supposed to pause momentarily before whistling the play dead. Buffalo clearly attempts to recover. The officials didn’t whistle it dead either. They called it a touchdown.
The commentary crew talked a lot about common sense so let’s discuss a couple things related to that. I noted in the GIF that Carter puts his arms up, which usually signals that a returner is not going to take it out of the end zone. That’s true and does make a good argument for common sense. The issue there is that signal is for his teammates. The officials have a different signal they’re looking for that is outlined above.
If you’re a fan you’ve seen this situation. If not, Google will get you an example quickly enough. A player is torching the defense. He’s excited. He drops the ball riiiiight before he crosses the goal line. What’s the ruling? Fumble. Common sense dictates he would have rather scored the touchdown and celebrated prematurely. No defender could have stopped him so what does the crew do? They follow the rule book.
Bills fans shouldn’t be angry at this call as it took a lot more than a blown judgment call to create the collapse that we all witnessed. And how bad is this call really? What you’re looking at is a VERY deep dive into the rules to get to the technically correct answer. Players from both teams immediately started substituting as if it were a touchback. Everyone was surprised at the touchdown call.
I’ll leave you with one last thought though. Look at the trajectory of the ball after DeAndre Carter establishes possession. That’s right Bills fans, the Bills were once again screwed in the playoffs by an illegal forward pass. What that means is the technically right call is a dead ball due to an incomplete forward pass and a penalty in the end zone ending the play. Two points Buffalo. Not seven.
And if you don’t believe me, well...audio on.