The Defender: Wild Card Round

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’s edition of The Defender features possibly the most indefensible play yet in the roughing the passer on Kirk Cousins. But it doesn’t stop there, I will also defend Cousins’s fourth-down pass with the game on the line, Jaylen Waddle’s catch on the sideline, Tyler Huntley’s goal-line leap, and the Cowboys’ insistence on kicking extra points.

Too Much Roughhousing

The most controversial play of the weekend is undoubtedly the roughing the passer call made on Dexter Lawrence in the Giants’ win over the Vikings. I assume everybody has seen it by now because it was all over Twitter but in case you live under a rock, here’s a link to the video. When I decided to do The Defender I knew I would face some tough situations. I didn’t know it would come this soon, though. I honestly don’t know how to defend that call, but I’m going to give it my best shot (just to make it clear I do not agree with the call at all, but that doesn’t mean I can’t defend it).

Roughing the passer has been one of the most contentious penalties in the league for years now, so we are no stranger to some bad calls. That also means we are familiar with what should constitute a roughing the passer penalty. Things like late hits, defenders falling on a quarterback with all their body weight, and hits below the knee. None of those apply here, that much is clear. There are two possible ways to defend this call, and I will present them to you.

The first is contact to the head of the passer, which does fall under the roughing the passer penalty. As you can see in the frame below (kind of), Lawrence does appear to make contact with the facemask of Cousins. It doesn’t look like forcible contact, and it was likely missed at first glance by most people, but I guess technically you could argue that the arm to the facemask is what makes it roughing the passer.

The second argument for roughing the passer comes once the ball has been released from Cousins’s hand. As you can see in the video, he is spun around and to the ground by Lawrence after attempting to pass the ball. Now, there are probably tens and tens of plays with a more violent follow through on a quarterback that weren’t called for roughing the passer this year, but if we base everything off that we start to get into some murky water. Could Lawrence have simply wrapped Cousins up and avoided throwing him to the ground? Possibly. He’s an incredibly strong man and I highly doubt Cousins was going to escape his grasp. Lawrence doesn’t throw him to the ground with much force but he does throw him to the ground after the ball was released, although the contact was made when the ball was still in his hand.

Again, just to reiterate, I don’t agree with the call. But, I do believe it can be defended. Not necessarily very strongly, but defended nonetheless.

Vikings Come Up Short, Literally

Part of the reason why that roughing the passer call was so controversial was the timing of it. The Vikings had the ball down seven with a little over two-and-a-half minutes left to play when the penalty was called. That Penalty effectively gave the Vikings new life. Instead of a third-and-four at their own 18-yard-line, they had a first down at the 33. Ultimately, it was a moot point because the Vikings turned the ball over on downs five plays later on a fourth-and-eight.

I’m sure plenty of people have seen this play as well because it was quite panned on social media, but Cousins made a three-yard completion to T.J. Hockenson on that fourth down and then the game was essentially over. It is never a good idea to throw the ball short of the sticks on fourth down unless the player is wide open, but let me defend Cousins here.

First off, it was not a checkdown. About half of the tweets I saw making fun of Cousins were basing it off the fact that he threw a checkdown with the game essentially on the line. That is false. Checkdowns are last-resort type routes that a quarterback throws when under pressure or when everything else is covered up, usually a swing route to a running back or something in the flat. Hockenson was not running one of those routes, he chipped on the defensive end and then appears to be running some sort of choice route where he reads the defender guarding him and either runs inside or outside depending on the leverage of the defender. So, just to be clear, Cousins did not throw a checkdown.

Cousins was also kind of forced to throw that ball in a way. Maybe it was due to the route combination or the coverage or a combination of both, but nothing else seems to be open. There is also some pressure on Cousins from none other than Lawrence, who bull rushes the right guard and is basically in Cousins’s lap when he releases the throw. So, Cousins decides that no one is open past the sticks and that he is about to be pressured, which leaves him with two options. Either throw the ball to Hockenson or scramble and as bad as the result was, the first option was the better choice. It also wasn’t outlandish to predict that Hockenson could break the tackle from Xavier McKinney, which would then leave him with a wide-open path to the first down. The tight end had been the Vikings’ best offensive player that game and was averaging over six yards after the catch for the game, which would have been enough to move the chains.

Obviously, Cousins was not processing all of that in his head in the handful of seconds he had the ball but he did deduce that throwing the ball to Hockenson was his best option at the moment. And I agree with that. Feel free to tell me what he should have done instead. A jump ball to a double-covered Justin Jefferson? Run like he’s Patrick Mahomes? No, Cousins made the right decision. It didn’t work out, but it’s not all on him.

Waddle’s Sideline Snag

I’ll keep this one short because it didn’t end up being too controversial, likely due to the outcome of the game and because the plays we’ve already discussed took away people’s attention. But Jaylen Waddle made a great catch on the sideline in an important moment of the Dolphins’ 34-31 loss to the Bills. It was on third down with the Dolphins backed up in their own territory and it kept their hopes for a game-winning drive alive.

As you can see in the video, Waddle makes the catch and gets two feet in bounds, which is definitively a catch. I know what you’re thinking: then why does this play need to be defended? It’s because when Waddle goes to the ground, the ball pops up. We have seen countless examples from over the years of similar plays being ruled incompletions, namely because the league refuses to stop having the most ambiguous rules for what is a catch and what isn’t. But Waddle’s was a catch, and they actually explained why on the broadcast. Because he got his third foot down, even though it was out of bounds, before going to the ground, he was ruled to have had possession. So matter what happened next, he secured the ball. It would essentially be the same as a running back taking the ball up the sideline, getting pushed out of bounds, and losing control when he hit the ground (although with much fewer steps). As I said before, this one didn’t end up being very controversial, but I just wanted to pop in and defend the fact that the refs called that one 100 percent correctly.

Tyler HUH-ntley’s Leap of Faith

Cousins may want to send a thank you card and a fruit basket to Huntley, because the Ravens’ quarterback may have spared him from experiencing the most scrutiny this weekend. In another play that was highly circulated on social media, Huntley tried to score on a quarterback sneak at the goal line and it went horribly wrong. Huntley leaped over the pile and attempted to reach the ball out into the endzone, only to be met by Logan Wilson, who forced a fumble that Sam Hubbard recovered for a 98-yard touchdown.

There is no denying that a quarterback sneak is the most effective play when that close to the goal line, but that is not what is in question here. What needs defending is Huntley’s decision to take to the air, and that is actually quite hard to defend. I’m sure if you asked him to do the play over again, he wouldn’t leave his feet the second time around, but I’m not in the business of time travel so I will simply defend his decision.

My only defense for Huntley’s actions is that the odds of that exact play happening are very, very low. How many times have we seen a quarterback sneak turn into a fumble return touchdown like that? In the NFL, probably none. That doesn’t make it right, but it does put it into perspective. Even if Huntley thought of the worst possible thing that could happen when he made that decision, he never would have considered what actually ended up happening. I guarantee you that there are more instances of a play like that resulting in a touchdown for the offense than a turnover. So, by that logic, the odds supported Huntley’s decision/ Could he have pulled it off better? Absolutely. Maybe don’t take off from the two-yard line next time. But, at the end of the day, this was a backup quarterback thrust into the starting role trying to make a play to win the game, and you can’t hate on a move like that completely.

Dallas Just Can’t Quit Maher

In a late addition to this week’s defense slate, we have the Cowboys’ continued choice to kick extra points instead of going for two. Wait a second, isn’t that usually the right thing to do? Yes, it is, except when your kicker misses four straight extra points, as Brett Maher did on Monday. This one is looked at a little differently than some of the other things that have been defended before because the Cowboys easily won the game, so they didn’t need those four points. That led to the response on social media being more mocking of Maher as opposed to criticizing him. But still, there were plenty of people that questioned why the Cowboys even kicked four extra points.

That’s a fair case to make. At some point, they should have realized that the next kick probably wasn’t going to go in. But I can defend that decision because that’s kind of what I do around here. The most simple decision is that the Cowboys did not expect him to miss another extra point. When he missed the first two kicks, there was no way the Cowboys assumed he would miss the third one. Maher missed three extra points all season, giving him a 94.3 percent conversion rate on those kicks. If my math is correct (which it very much may not be), the odds of him missing three extra points in a row given his rate of success in the regular season was .01 percent.

But he didn’t miss three, he missed four, which means that after he missed the third one the Cowboys still trotted him out there for a fourth. But I also have a defense for that decision. It’s pretty clear to me what the Cowboys were doing at that point; they were trying to build Maher’s confidence back up. They were playing against Tom Brady, which means you can never be too comfortable with any lead. If somehow he led a miraculous comeback and the Cowboys needed a clutch kick late in the game, they didn’t want to have to rely on a kicker that hasn’t kicked in an hour. The Cowboys may also need a big kick in the next round of the playoffs, and maybe if Maher saw his fourth extra point go through the uprights then maybe it would get him out of his funk.

It’s clear that Maher is not a bad kicker, his stats this year prove that. And the Cowboys were playing the long game. they were hoping that they could restore some of their kicker’s confidence in case they needed him at some point. Obviously, they didn’t end up needing him, but he did convert his fifth extra point of the night. Maybe that was all he needed to get his head back in the game, or maybe the Cowboys will go out and sign a kicker this week and kick Maher to the curb. But, either way, that is why Dallas didn’t give up on its kicker despite his awful day.