The NFL season opened the season on Thursday night in the best way possible: quickly. The game between the Rams and Bills started a little after 8:20 and wrapped up in under three hours. Great! That I was about to fall asleep in my chair in the fourth quarter was my own fault. It had been a long day. But an NFL game that zips by is almost always going to be an NFL game that I like. Given that Buffalo's 31-10 victory was every bit as lopsided as the score makes it look, it's probably for the best that everyone involved just got on with it.
The game might have been longer, though. On the Rams’ lone touchdown drive of the game, they got away with a clear delay of game penalty just before a crucial fourth down. Here was the play.
As you can see, the play clock very clearly hits 0 before the snap. This play could’ve been blown dead by the referee. It wasn’t, however, and announcer Mike Tirico explained why:
That was another one of those plays where the play clock, as you looked at it and it hit double zero, and you feel like, “Oh, shouldn’t that be a flag?” But the mechanic is, they look—meaning the official in the back—at the play clock. When it hits zero, they tell the official, take your eyes to the ball, and is the ball gone? And right there, that’s one that in a normal setting would not be called delay of game even though zero was on the clock. It was done right on the field.
Ah. The game then went to commercial, and returned with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell talking to NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell; this implied that Tirico has the necessary access to hold forth on this. Still, what Tirico was saying there confused me a lot. But I think I figured it out.
What Mike Tirico was saying is the NFL can choose whether to enforce its rules or not, and can also choose whether to give players a little leeway in enforcing them. (Generally, this will happen if it improves things for the offense.) So you get an extra tick on a possible delay of game. If you’re a Hall of Fame-caliber tackle like Jason Peters, you get to leave early on shotgun snaps for years. It’s not a false start! The refs were busy looking at the clock and the ball! It was done right on the field!
I used to get upset about this. Why weren’t they enforcing the rules? Why are catches reviewable but delay of game penalties are not? When will this kind of thing ruin a game? But last night, after Tirico’s explanation, I had an epiphany. Or, anyway, I realized that it doesn't matter.
Who cares if it’s a delay of game! The play, where Cooper Kupp was stopped by the Bills defense but then pushed forward by his teammates, was pretty cool. (You’re allowed to push a teammate forward, but you can’t pull him. I figure the refs would have called it had he been pulled, but maybe they would’ve been busy looking at clocks.) I don’t mind instant replay. I like how you can check to see if a runner actually scored a touchdown. But the NFL has so many calls that are decided by this slick slow motion reconstruction that it’s kind of nice to realize there still are a bunch of calls that rely on some moonlight lawyer in his 50s having a quick enough reaction time to throw a flag or signal delay of game or spot the ball properly. I have moved on, enlightened, and shall never complain about this again.