EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Let’s start with this: The New England Patriots did not lose to the New York Jets on Sunday solely because of Rule 9, Section 1, Article 3. Their issues run deeper than a new special-teams rule for 2013.
But the never-before-called penalty on the rule is the place to start when dissecting the 30-27 overtime loss at MetLife Stadium that had Patriots coach Bill Belichick fuming and Jets coach Rex Ryan cracking that it was about time his team got a break.
The penalty gave the Jets new life in overtime after kicker Nick Folk’s 56-yard field goal attempt fell short. He hit a 42-yarder four plays later to seal the Jets’ surprising victory.
The rule was implemented this year as a player-safety consideration to protect defenseless players, and what became clear after the game was that umpire Tony Michalek had one interpretation in throwing his penalty flag while Belichick, who prides himself on knowing every nuance of the rulebook, had an entirely different one.
Who is correct? And how could something like that get lost in translation?
As is often the case, there are multiple layers to the answers, so let's detail the play in question.
On the 56-yard field goal attempt, Patriots rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones lined up over Vladimir Ducasse, the right tackle on the field goal protection unit. At the snap, he looped to his right and pushed from the behind of teammate Will Svitek, with the force of Svitek knocking the Jets’ Damon Harrison out of his stance while Svitek reached up with his right arm.
Michalek threw his flag almost immediately, with referee Jerome Boger later explaining that Jones’ act was illegal because he “pushed his teammate into the formation.”
Belichick saw it differently, sharing his opinion that it would be a penalty only if the push came from a player who was initially lined up behind the line of scrimmage so he could get a running start.
“You can’t push from the second level, and I didn’t think we did that,” Belichick said. “They eliminated the pushing on the second level.”
But any pushing, at any level, is not allowed. So from a bottom-line perspective, Belichick didn’t fully understand the rule to coach his players appropriately, which is surprising.
At the same time, it takes only a Google search to understand why there might be some misunderstanding about the rule. The league’s own website, NFL.com, had explained the rule this way for the past six weeks: “Team B players not on the line of scrimmage at the snap cannot push players on the line of scrimmage into the offensive formation.”
An accompanying video had NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino saying, “They cannot push from the second level, the down linemen into the offensive formation. … These techniques are dangerous, pushing into the offensive formation, and that’s why we want to get them out of the game.”
But within two hours of the conclusion of the Patriots-Jets game, the NFL.com article explaining the rule had been altered, the league perhaps sensing that there would be a lot more discussion about Rule 9, Section 1, Article 3 following Sunday’s controversial call.
The following sentence in the explainer was eliminated: “Team B players not on the line of scrimmage at the snap cannot push players on the line of scrimmage into the offensive formation.”
The sentence now reads: “Team B players cannot push teammates on the line of scrimmage into the offensive formation.”
Why the change eliminating the reference to players “not on the line of scrimmage at the snap”?
One could understand Belichick’s belief that Jones was doing nothing wrong based on the way Blandino himself had explained the rule in the NFL.com video. But somewhere along the line, Blandino’s explanation and what is written in the official rulebook were no longer consistent because Rule 9, Section 1, Article 3 plainly reads: “Team B players cannot push teammates on the line of scrimmage into the offensive formation.”
Second level, it seems, is inconsequential.
Furthermore, Boger explained after Sunday’s game that any pushing is prohibited.
“It could be with the body, not necessarily with the hand, but with the body into his teammate, into the formation. It’s any type of pushing action,” he said.
The Patriots learned this the hard way Sunday.
Make no mistake, the call wasn’t solely what cost them the game. It’s hard to win when the offense is 1-of-12 on third down, Tom Brady throws a pick-six early in the third quarter to help the Jets get back into the game and the defense struggles for long stretches.
Those are the deeper issues at play. But in the end, the Patriots still had a chance to win until Rule 9, Section 1, Article 3 was enforced -- Belichick and the officials with differing views on the interpretation of the ruling.