The Defender: Week 16

A lot of things happen each week in the NFL, which leads to a lot of different opinions. But each week there are a few events that lead to almost universal outrage from football fans all over. Whether it is a bad call made by a ref, a coaching blunder, a perplexing play on the field, or anything in between, there is always something. That’s where I come in. As ‘The Defender” (an entirely self-appointed) I’m here to defend those bad calls, confusing decisions, or mistakes on the field. I may not always agree with what I’m saying, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find a way to defend some of the week’s most indefensible occurrences. This week, the inaugural edition of The Defender, we have a game-losing interception by Tua Tagovailoa, a scheduling snafu by the league, and some (potentially) late missed calls.

Tua’s Tragic Turnover

Allow me to set the scene. Down 26-20 in a game they were up handily at one point, the Dolphins get the ball back with 1:56 left in the game. On yeah, it’s also Christmas Day. You’d think that with an offense featuring two of the most explosive players in the game in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle would have a pretty good chance of scoring in a little less than two minutes. But, on the second play of the drive, Tagovailoa threw a fairly easy interception to Packer’s corner Rasul Douglas.

Now, the immediate reaction to that pick, which was Tua’s third on the day, was very critical of the young quarterback. And that’s fair, he didn’t have the best game. But I’m here to explain that interception. I’m not saying that the turnover was not his fault, just that maybe it wasn’t the egregious decision that everyone on Twitter was making it out to be.

Below is what Tua saw when he began his windup to throw (ignore the “raw sew” closed captioning which is there for some reason). Down in the bottom right corner of the screenshot is Douglas, the player who would ultimately grab the interception. What Tua reads in this scenario is that Douglas stays on Hill, who is running a drag. That means he is either staying with him in man coverage or playing a squat zone in what would likely be cover two, at least on that side of the formation. With no player running with Mike Gesicki on the corner route behind Douglas, that indicates it was probably some sort of cover two to that side. In cover two, one of the ways to exploit it is by throwing what is called a “hole shot.” That is where the quarterback fits the ball in between the corner in squat coverage and the safety playing over the top. I assume that is what Tua read and is trying to do in this situation before two things happen. The first is that Douglas makes a great play by backing off Hill and undercutting the route to Gesicki. But that is also possible because Tua does not do the greatest job managing his eyes on the play. From the second he drops back, he is staring down that side of the field, giving Douglas the opportunity to read his eyes and make the game-clinching play.

So, as you can see, this was not a horrible interception by Tua. It certainly is not worthy of the “Tua Turntheballover” nickname that has been circling social media. Especially considering he had just five interceptions this season heading into the game and has a lower interception percentage than several quarterbacks, notably Joe Burrow and Josh Allen. Yes, that was certainly a play that Tua would like to have back, but it was also paired with a great play by the Douglas, so we should reframe our conversation around the play accordingly.

NFL’s Ebenezer Snooze Fest Schedule

I applaud the NFL for trying something new this season and playing games on Christmas Day for the first time ever. It made sense for the NFL to go head-to-head with the NBA on the holiday this year, given the fact that it fell perfectly on a Sunday. But, unfortunately, the league did not anticipate the three games it slotted for Christmas being this bad.

In their defense (which is kind of my whole thing here), they did try to make some entertaining matchups. Nobody can predict how the league is going to play out this year, so anybody that’s blasting the league for putting on uninteresting games on Christmas needs to take a step back and reevaluate the three matchups, which is what I will do now.

To the league’s credit, they at least got one team in the first game correct. The Dolphins are one of the most exciting teams in the league. Even though they may not rack up the most wins, they’re fun to watch, so putting them on display on the holiday is a good choice. The Packers, on the other hand, have been a letdown this year, but they still managed to have the best game of the day. And nobody was expecting the Packers and reigning back-to-back MVP Aaron Rodgers to be under .500 at this point in the season, so the league gets a pass for this game.

The next two games of the day were not even redeemable. The Rams beat the Broncos 51-14 in one of the most embarrassing performances by any team in a while. But I can’t blame the NFL for putting that game in a prime spot. The Rams are the defending Super Bowl champs, while the Broncos were expected to be much improved with the addition of Russell Wilson. Both teams were expected to be playoff teams, and possibly even Super Bowl contenders. The same can be said about the final game of the day, a 19-16 Buccaneers win over the Cardinals. But don’t let the close score and the fact that the game went to overtime fool you, this game stunk. But, both teams made the playoffs last year and have a handful of exciting players. What no one was expecting was Trace McSorley to be quarterbacking the Cardinals and Tom Brady to experience some serious regression after a fantastic season in 2021.

So while the league did end up putting on a disappointing slate of games on Christmas Day, that clearly was not their intention. And don’t act like you weren’t excited about these games when the NFL announced the schedule in the offseason. Not every game is going to go as expected and be great, and since the circumstances surrounding these games were largely unforeseen, I will give some lenience to whoever created the schedule.

Rhamondre Ruins the Pats’ Day

We almost saw a crazy comeback by New England on Saturday. The Patriots rallied back from a 22-0 deficit to make it 22-18 and connected on one of the wildest hail marys in recent years in the process. But they ultimately fell short, thanks to a very untimely fumble by Rhamondre Stevenson. And it certainly was a very interesting fumble because there is no doubt about whether or not the ball got knocked loose, it clearly did, but it came down to one of the most abstract terms in football: forward progress.

Now let me preface, this was not the most controversial call that the refs have made this year, not even close. This call also didn’t seem to enrage people on social media as much as some previous ones. But this was a controversial call nonetheless. So, I will attempt to defend the refs, even though the crowds with pitchforks calling for their heads is a lot smaller than usual.

Forward progress is very hard to define because it is so subjective, so let me attempt to put myself in the refs’ shoes. In most cases, forward progress is stopped when a player is wrapped up by another player or in a pile that is no longer budging. Neither of those is the case here (also here is the video in case you haven’t seen it yet). As you can see, Stevenson kind of shrugs off the initial tackler and is ready to start going forward again. That’s when the rest of the Bengals players show up, including Vonn Bell who punches the ball out. It’s definitely a close call and it probably would have been whistled dead in just another second or two, but the ball came out before that could happen, resulting in a fumble for Stevenson and a win for Cincinnati.

Texans’ Christmas Miracle

In case you haven’t heard, the Texans actually won a game this weekend, bringing them up to a grand total of two wins this year. And if you didn’t watch the game then let me catch you up on the final play. It was a hail mary attempt by the Titans, one that ended up as an interception for Jalen Pitre. I know what you’re thinking, ‘why are you having to defend that play?’ It is true that this play did not cause much outrage, probably because nobody was that invested in the outcome, but I still want to defend the possible outrage it could have caused.

And that, of course, is pass interference on the hail mary. As you can see in the play (10:45 of this video), Treylon Burks and Desmond King got a little tied up in the end zone with the ball in the air. There was no flag on the play, which I absolutely agree with. As anyone with a Twitter account can tell you, there is nothing football fans hate more than a game decided by the refs. If the refs would have called a pass interference (which can probably be called on any hail mary attempt), then the Titans would have had a chance to win the game from the two-yard line, which would have been a lot easier. So, even though there was some contact on that final play, the refs did the right thing by letting the players play and decide the game themselves.