It was Kansas City’s second offensive play from scrimmage. They faced second-and-seven from their own 36. The play-action fake from quarterback Patrick Mahomes to running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire left the back in perfect position to block on linebacker Shaquil Barrett – who came unblocked off the edge.
If you had watched the AFC Championship Game, you would have watched this same back throw a bone-rattling pass block on Buffalo defensive lineman Mario Addison. But none of that was happening today. Clyde jumped around Barrett like he was radio-active. As soon as he was clear, Edwards-Helaire turned looking for the pass – which I thought was nicely ironic. Already in Barrett’s grasp and on his way to the ground (and not for the last time that day), Mahomes did manage to get the pass off – a throw-away close enough to Edwards-Helaire’s feet to avoid a grounding call.
That small moment was the first hint that Kansas City had left some of its edge in the locker room. There would follow many others. Tennis has a statistic called “unforced errors.” Those are mess-ups that have nothing to do with the efforts of the opponent and everything to do with the failure of the player to execute the fundamental activities of the sport.
Football doesn’t have that statistic, but if it did the Kansas City Chiefs would have filled the Super Bowl scorecard with poorly run routes, passes dropped at the worst possible moment, senseless penalties and running backs who would rather not pass protect. It all added up to a 31-9 loss to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl LV (gamebook) (summary) that was about equal parts Buccaneer domination of both lines of scrimmage and self-inflicted wounds from the Chiefs. Their first offensive series ended on another telling play.
The Chiefs on third-and-eight bunched three wide receivers to the right. Byron Pringle was on the line, with Mecole Hardman just off his right shoulder and Tyreek Hill just off his left. All three headed up field.
The problem developed immediately in the secondary. Safety Jordan Whitehead understood that he had the deep middle, but all of the Tampa Bay defenders on the right side thought they had underneath coverage. So, when Hill broke to the sideline at about eight yards, everyone except Whitehead stopped dropping – leaving Jordan with two deep routes to cover. Forced to choose, Whitehead stayed with Pringle – who was headed straight up the middle, leaving Hardman completely uncovered up the sideline.
Under pressure again, Mahomes nonetheless got off an accurate throw that should have put the game’s first touchdown on the board. But Mecole slowed down after he broke into the clear – not a whole lot, mind you. Just enough so that the throw landed just beyond his reach.
The Chiefs’ second possession ended when Patrick’s throw into the end zone bounced off of Tyreek’s helmet.
And that’s how the day would go for the former champions. During their 16-2 season, these executions had been routine. But on Super Bowl Sunday the Chiefs more closely resembled a team on the first day of training camp than they did defending champions playing the most important game of the year.
Blame the Extra Week?
Sometimes strange things happen to a team during the two weeks between the Conference Championship Games and the Super Bowl. More than one team has somehow lost its way somewhere in the build-up to the big game.
In Kansas City’s case, this team has come very far very fast. In Patrick Mahomes’ rookie season, the Chiefs advanced to the Conference Championship. They won it all in just his second season. On the heels of winning 20 of Patrick’s last 21 regular season starts, Super Bowl LV would be Kansas City’s eighth playoff game over the three-year span that Patrick had been their starter.
They had won 6 of the previous 7. And now they were in Tampa Bay looking to win back-to-back titles. It’s enough to turn the heads of even veteran teams. And then, for the last two weeks hearing how great and unstoppable they were – all this on the heels of what was probably their best game of the year?
It would be understandable if all of this went to their heads a little. Possibly, on some level, they may have expected this to be an easier game than their contest against Buffalo was. If they saw the same thing on film that I saw – the consistent struggles Tampa Bay has with their zone defenses – it’s likely that they comfortably expected to put more than their share of points on the board.
I bring all of this up not to diminish the Buccaneer victory, but to acknowledge what everyone saw during the game. This was not the Kansas City team we had seen all year. Not only were they missing their focus, but the composure that you usually see from the Chiefs was also extremely short-lived.
On the second play from scrimmage, defensive end Frank Clark engaged in some after-play shoving with center Ryan Jensen. Jensen is a better agitator than he is a blocker, but he got under the Chief’s skin early and often. Early in the second quarter, Ryan would coax defensive lineman Chris Jones into an unnecessary roughness penalty. After a short completion on a second down play, Jensen got in that final, after-the-whistle shove on Jones that Chris responded to with a solid shove of his own – and as everyone knows, it’s always the retaliator who gets caught. Before the half was over, Jones would get away with an outright punch to Jensen’s head – a play that could have resulted in his ejection from the game.
Oh, the Penalties
The play that was called, though, initiated a flood of Kansas City penalties, which, added to their other mental mistakes, would pretty much doom Kansas City’s bid to repeat. In the second quarter alone, Kansa City was hammered for 90 penalty yards. Tampa Bay advanced the football a total of 178 yards in the second quarter as they scored two touchdowns and had a third drive end on the Kansas City one-yard line. Sixty-seven of those 178 yards (37%) came from Kansas City penalties. The two Buccaneer drives that ended in the touchdowns that essentially decided the game totaled 109 yards from scrimmage. Kansas City awarded Tampa Bay 52 of those yards on penalties. And that total doesn’t even account for 34 hidden penalty yards that were as damaging as any big play from the Tampa Bay offense.
A couple of those penalties probably shouldn’t have been called, but most of them were nothing more than lack of attention.
In their recent playoff history, KC has made a habit of staggering out of the gate. They had trailed by at least 9 points (and by as many as 24) in four of their previous five playoff games – all of them Kansas City wins. In most of those games, the momentum turned on one play. Somebody would turn in one positive play, and everything would flow from there.
With 10:55 left in the first half, it looked for all the world like Kansas City had made that play. Trailing 7-3, the Chief defense stuffed a Ronald Jones run on fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. On KC’s subsequent first play from scrimmage, Mahomes found Hill over the middle just beyond the line – connecting with him on a catch-and-run of 14 yards.
At that moment, there was a strong feeling that the Kansas City explosion was imminent. But it never came to fruition. Kansas City managed to reach their own 17, facing a third-and-eight with still 9:24 left in the half. From that point, over the next ten snaps of the football, the combination of KC’s unfocused play and some questionable officiating would converge in five huge plays that would determine Super Bowl LV.
The sequence began with a huge drop by Kelce of the third-down pass. That play – usually routine for Travis – took the offense off the field, and brought on the punting team. Rookie punter Tommy Townsend dropped the snap, but coolly picked up the football and delivered a soaring 56-yard punt that Jaydon Mickens could only return to the Tampa Bay 30 yard line. But there was a penalty on the play.
At the time, this didn’t seem like a game-changing moment. Kansas City just moved back 8 yards and punted again. This time, though, the rookie punter shanked the kick, sailing it out of bounds on the Kansas City 38-yard line. The penalty was only eight yards, but the difference in starting field position was all of 42 yards.
Backed against a wall – of sorts – the Kansas City defense began its response. Two passes from Brady accounted for 6 yards and brought up third-and-four. When Jones deflected Tom Brady’s third-down pass into the arms of safety Tyrann Mathieu for an apparent interception, it seemed that the Chiefs had reclaimed the momentum that they had briefly lost. But a penalty gave the ball back to Tampa Bay.
Charvarius Ward, defending on Mike Evans up the right sideline did have hands on Evans – but did nothing to impeded the running of the route. As with a first-quarter holding call against Bashaud Breeland that aided Tampa Bay’s first touchdown drive, the contact was entirely incidental. Here, though, the marginal call would dearly cost the Chiefs.
The defense stopped Tampa Bay again, and the Bucs brought Ryan Succop onto the field to at least add a field goal – which he did. For a moment, it appeared that – for all of the mishaps – the Chiefs had held them to three points and a 10-3 lead. But, rushing from the edge on the field goal block team, Mecole Hardman had set his hands down just beyond the line of scrimmage – the five yard penalty putting the Tampa Bay offense back on the field with a first down.
In football time, it had been 3 minutes and 13 seconds since Kansas City faced third-down on their 17-yard line. Now, Tampa Bay sat at that same 17-yard line. On the next play, Brady threw his second touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski, and Tampa Bay was on its way.
We Have to Talk About the Officiating
Since the officiating affected this game on a couple of plays that everyone saw – and maybe affected the game even more on a few that you wouldn’t have seen unless you watched the film – it’s a subject we’ll need to look at.
Two things about the way the game was called are clear. The vast majority of the 11 penalties called against Kansas City (for 120 penalty yards) were justified. It’s also clear that the game was not evenly called. If the Tampa Bay secondary was allowed to grab and push the Kansas City receivers, then clearly the Chief secondary should have been awarded that same privilege.
If, however, Kansas City was penalized in critical moments of the game for inconsequential infractions, then those penalties should, obviously, have been called against Tampa Bay as well.
Using the holding penalties against Breeland and Ward as the standard, I counted 11 penalties – just as bad – that could easily have been called against the Tampa Bay secondary: 5 holding calls, 3 illegal contacts, and 3 pass interference calls. My tally only counted those penalties likely to be accepted – there were about three others that Kansas City would have declined. Many of these calls would have clearly been marginal calls, but so too were the very damaging marginal calls made against Kansas City.
The question that rises out of all of this (considering how badly the Chiefs were beaten along the line of scrimmage) is would a more even officiating of the game had made any real difference? As I look over the transpirings, I feel that they very well could have.
In their last three possessions (in a three-score game) the Chiefs reached Tampa Bay’s 11, 27 and 10 yard lines, the first two drives ending in failed fourth-downs, and the last one on a goal-line interception. On all of these drives, there were missed penalties that could have given Kansas City a fresh shot at a touchdown or two that might have changed the whole feel of the game.
In these drives, though, a lot of these overlooked penalties weren’t marginal. As the fourth quarter drew on, and as Kansas City drew closer to the end zone, the officials pretty much put their whistles away and let the Buccaneer defense do whatever it wanted.
Everybody remembers the wild second-and-nine play from the Tampa Bay 11-yard line early in the fourth quarter. The play that – after an extended scramble by Mahomes – ended with the ball sliding through Demarcus Robinson’s hands in the end zone. Just before the throw to Robinson, Kelce was running to an open patch of the end zone. He might have drawn the throw had not Carlton Davis come up behind him and pushed him to the ground (about ten yards beyond the five-yard zone in which Davis could legally contact him).
Two plays later – on fourth down – Davis was at it again, trying to shove Hill out of the back of the end zone. The drive that ended with the incompletion to Williams on that play should certainly have been extended a couple of times by penalty.
The more I think about that play, the more curious it becomes. Unlike Carlton’s previous illegal contact penalty – which looks like it might have been accidental – Davis, with several steps of a running start, ran straight at Hill (standing along the back of the end zone) and did everything he could to push him out through the back of the end zone. This means that Carlton was counting on the nearby official to notice that Tyreek was out of bounds and ineligible to touch the ball until he had re-established himself, while at the same time counting on the fact that that same official wouldn’t penalize him (Davis) for his flagrant violation of the contact rule.
It’s certainly an unusual occurrence to see a receiver (in this case Byron Pringle) running along the back of the end zone slapping at the hand of a defender (in this case, Jamel Dean) to get him to let go of his jersey. But that’s what this game devolved into at the end.
My question, I suppose, is how many times could Tampa Bay give the Chiefs a fresh set of downs (assuming some of these penalties had been called) deep in their territory before Kansas City would finally take advantage of the opportunities – even though they were being badly outplayed on the line? The alternate question, though, is just as valid. Given the fact that Kansas City never could take advantage of the many opportunities that they had already been presented with, why would you think a few more would make a difference?
The irritating thing about an un-evenly officiated game is that it muddies the result. It opens the doors for a myriad of what ifs.
For the Chiefs, it is enough to say that – for whatever reason – they played poorly. Calls made or unmade aside, they didn’t show up – and got themselves embarrassed for it.
It’s hard to call this a team at a cross-roads. Still very young with an explosive core in place, it’s not unreasonable to see this team reaching the big game several more times before Mahomes is finished. But this loss is a significant blemish on their legacy.
It will probably always be the “one that got away.” How this will (or possibly won’t) inform their future playoff runs will be worth noting.
The Tampa Bay Bucs are a different story. From the time they lost their first meeting with Kansas City in Week 12, everything has gone as perfectly for Tampa Bay as the most ardent fan could have hoped.
Just 7-5 at that point, the Buccaneers finished their regular season with four games against losing teams. Wins in those games qualified the Bucs for the playoffs, where they met another losing team (playing a back-up quarterback, no less). A football game in DC in January could come with some nasty weather – but this one didn’t – 40 pleasant degrees and light winds.
After barely surviving Washington, Tampa Bay moved on to a match-up against New Orleans and a quarterback so injured he probably shouldn’t have been on the field.
Tampa Bay’s final two playoff games played out somewhat similarly. As with Kansas City, Green Bay found themselves surprisingly unable to execute the simplest routine tasks. As with Kansas City, Green Bay could only attempt to resist Barrett with a back-up tackle – who, I understand, has already been released. And, as with Kansas City, when Tampa Bay needed the officials to look the other way and “let them play,” the officials looked the other way – but in both games, at a critical juncture of the game, the officials found their flags in time to call damaging, out-of-context penalties against their opponent. As with the Washington game, the weather couldn’t have been more co-operative. While the forecast all week called for snow, the NFC Championship Game opened with bright sunlight pouring onto the Buccaneer sideline – certainly an omen.
Down to the fact that both their safeties healed in time to play in the Super Bowl and extending even to having the game in their home stadium, everything imaginable broke in favor of the Buccaneers.
Why this happens can be inexplicable. While it seems like there is a higher power pulling strings, this could just all be part of the general randomness of life. If you believe in karma, then, perhaps, there was still some positive left-over karma from Tampa Bay’s 0-26 start nearly a half-century ago.
If it is a karma thing, though, you can be pretty much assured that it’s over and won’t be a positive factor for Tampa Bay next year. During and after the game, the Buccaneers did more than enough to provoke the football gods – if they exist.
World Champions and Bad Sports
Here in the much-advertised United States of America we always hope that our sports heroes and champions are steeped in the virtues of good sportsmanship. You don’t have to watch very many games in any sport to see that this virtue is eroding. Although this isn’t yet the case with all of them, the American professional athlete is trending ever deeper into the depths of arrogance, self-worship and bad taste.
Sadly, during and after Super Bowl LV, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers set new lows in tepidly bad sportsmanship. Bad enough was the fact that Tampa Bay – ahead by 22 points with about three-and-a-half minutes left in the game was still throwing for the end zone, but now their championship is also sullied by the Antoine Winfield moment.
I’m sure you remember it. With 4:06 left in the game, Patrick Mahomes’ desperation fourth-down heave falls incomplete. Instead of leaving the field, Winfield waits until the fallen Tyreek Hill looks up. When he is certain that he has Hill’s full attention, Winfield taunts him.
I haven’t seen every one of the Super Bowls (life doesn’t always allow you that luxury). But I’ve seen most of them and I rather think that this is likely the most egregious show of bad sportsmanship that the Super Bowl has ever seen. On the broadcast, Tony Romo likened it to kicking a man when he is down. It was certainly all of that. After the game, Mr. Winfield was, of course, un-repentant. A full participant in all of the noxious attitudes that are beginning to permeate this generation of athletes, he was actually proud of what was – in reality – a very cowardly act.
This general sense of loss of control has become the meme of the after-game in Tampa. Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski are already becoming legendary for their drunken, boorish conduct. The disrespectful way – for instance – that they’ve tossed around the trophy is frat boy behavior. The kind you might expect from someone who has never won anything and has no idea how to behave.
Or, perhaps, someone who has won too much and no longer respects the game and its process.
At any rate, you anger the football gods at your own risk. Laugh if you will, but I have seen them avenge themselves more than once on teams and individuals that cross the lines. If you will remember, after New Orleans trashed Tampa Bay in their Week Nine contest, the Saints – including their coach – gave themselves over to an uproarious celebration. Even though this was done in the privacy of their locker room and not intended to directly taunt the Buccaneers, it was an unseemly display.
And, if you’ll remember, New Orleans’ season began to go south from that very moment – including the loss of quarterback Drew Brees to nearly a dozen broken ribs in their very next game.
I suppose we’ll see next year what repercussions these actions will bring.
A Warning and a Suggestion
Beyond the heartlessness of it, the most annoying thing about the Winfield moment was there was no consequence. All of the officials threw their flags, and Winfield was rightfully penalized for taunting. But it was a toothless penalty. The Tampa Bay offense, coming onto the field in a game they already had won was set back a few yards – as consequences go, it was not worth mentioning.
This, then, was actually the second time in this year’s playoffs that a horrific display of bad sportsmanship went virtually unpunished. After the classless Baltimore Ravens clinched their win over Tennessee with a late game interception, the entire Ravens’ team rushed onto the field to taunt Tennessee. Again, flags flew but the few yards marked off for the ensuing Baltimore possession were less than meaningless.
The problem here is that the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty – as it is currently – doesn’t have the power to over-turn the play and allow the offended team to maintain possession. Both of the fouls previously mentioned occurred after the play was over and possession of the football had formally passed from one team to another. I invite the NFL to re-visit this. Perhaps they should establish an “egregious unsportsmanlike conduct” penalty – specifically for situations like this – that can suspend the transfer of possession to truly penalize this petulant behavior.
My warning is that we will see more of this. The football world watched both of those moments unfold. Until and unless the league establishes a penalty that can adequately prevent these displays, they will become increasingly common until the post-game taunting of the losers by the winners will be part of every post-game ritual.
Shortly after Winfield’s taunt, while the flags were flying around him, Antoine had a brief moment of genuine remorse. For just a second on his knees, he cradled his head in his hands in a classic what-have-I-just-done pose. Mr. Winfield’s regret was not for behaving like a jerk. Apparently, he has no issue with being a jerk. But for that brief moment, he thought that his self-serving actions had overturned the play and given the ball back to the Chiefs. That kind of consequence would be the only thing that could cause him to regret his actions – and the only real deterrent to this ugly behavior.
NFL, the next move is yours.