You Have To Stand In The Right Spot
9:06 AM EST on December 11, 2023
Before Sunday, Chiefs wide receiver Kadarius Toney was known as the guy who drops a lot of passes and makes it much harder for the Chiefs to win games. I suppose he will maintain that reputation as the rest of the season unfolds, but he will also be moving forward with a new moniker: He's the guy who doesn't know where the fuck to stand.
The Chiefs trailed the Bills 20-17 with 1:24 left to play when they seemingly took the lead with one of the coolest plays of the year. Patrick Mahomes dropped back and completed a long pass to Travis Kelce in the seam, who ran the ball to the 20-yard line before picking his head up and throwing a backpass across the field to Toney, who ran into the end zone untouched. The play was sick as hell, full of all the skill and razzle-dazzle that has defined the Mahomes-era Chiefs, and it did not count. Once the play was over, the referees picked up a flag and explained that Toney had lined up offside. The Chiefs were pushed back five yards, ultimately turned the ball over on downs, and lost.
Toney screwing up in a big moment was not exactly surprising, but the ways in which his coach and quarterback responded to his clear mistake was unexpected. Andy Reid, who usually seems half-asleep during his postgame pressers, was all fired up about how the dastardly referees had jobbed his boys out of a signature win. "Normally I get a warning before something like that happens in a big game," said Reid. "A bit embarrassing in the National Football League for that to take place."
Mahomes, who had to be held back by teammates while screaming at the officials, was equally steamed when talking to the press. Mahomes made a passionate argument against the penalty not on the basis that Toney was in fact onside, but that such a small infraction should have been overlooked for the sake of the game's entertainment quality. "I saw the picture and he probably is barely offside," said Mahomes. "But for [the referee] to take the game into his hands over a call like that, that doesn't affect the play at all. At all. Didn't affect anything. I mean, it's just tough, man. And like I said, man, that's a Hall-of-Fame tight end making a Hall-of-Fame play that won't be shown because we threw a flag for offensive offsides, and so it takes away from not only this game and this season, but from a legendary career that Travis has had."
Philosophically, I agree. The whole point of professional sports is to create space for athletes to do incredible, awe-inspiring things, and the purpose of referees and rulebooks is not to try and prevent those awe-inspiring things from happening, but to maintain a sense of legibility and fairness around those big, important plays. This has always been the basis of the argument against replay review—are we really better off routinely wiping incredible catches from the game because a slow-motion replay showed the ball wobble slightly and brush the grass as the receiver hit the ground?
But Mahomes's broadly correct argument about what the point of football is and how it should be allowed to unfold is stopped short by the fact that Toney was so obviously offside. Mahomes mentioned during his press conference that offensive offsides is a penalty that is almost never called because it is customary for receivers to look over at the referee and confirm that they are lined up correctly before the ball is snapped. All-22 footage of the play shows that Toney never did that, which left the referee with a split-second decision between calling an obvious penalty or letting it go because the ensuing play might be a legendary one. If it's the officials' duty to shepherd the game rather than strictly legislate it, then it's also on the players to meet them halfway by adhering to the most basic tenets of the game and seeking feedback whenever possible.
Referee Carl Cheffers spoke to a pool reporter after the game, and explained that the down judge was compelled to throw a flag because of just how blatant Toney's alignment was. "It's one of those things we don't want to be overly technical on, but when in his alignment he's lined up over the ball, that's something we are going to call offensive offside." Cheffers was also asked about Reid's and Mahomes's comments about receiving warnings or alignment advice from referees during the game, and his answer was more less Yeah, we would have told him where to stand if he'd asked us.
"Yes, ultimately, if they looked for alignment advice, certainly we are going to give it to them," said Cheffers. "But ultimately, they are responsible for wherever they line up. And, certainly, no warning is required, especially if they are lined up so far offsides that they are actually blocking our view of the ball."
Reid and Mahomes and everyone else who is bummed out about a cool play being stricken from history are right to be annoyed, but the target of their angst should be the professional wide receiver who seems to play the game without basic spatial awareness.