One of the more common coach sayings in all of football ball that no one play cost us the game. That usually comes after it seems quite the opposite is true, where one play actually made the difference between winning and losing. In some cases, it’s fairly obvious, like a short, missed field goal that would have moved the score from a loss to a win. In others, it’s a bit more connective, like a missed coverage on a deep pass from the other team or penalty that changed the complexion of the end. It’s really up to your perspective on the question of cause and effect.
That is exactly the conversation that’s happening around last Sunday’s AFC Championship Game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cincinnati Bengals, a game that the Chiefs won in the closing seconds with a game winning field goal. The one play wasn’t the field goal, but rather the one before it that put Kansas City in that position. In the game’s closing moments, Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes ran out of bounds at the 42 yard line with eight seconds remaining, still out of field goal range and leaving the Chiefs with maybe one chance to try and move the ball closer to the uprights. Which meant increasingly the game appeared destined for overtime in deciding who would go to the Super Bowl.
That is, except for the fact that at the end of Mahomes’ run, Bengals defender Joseph Ossai shoved the quarterback when he was clearly out of bounds, which earned Cincinnati a roughing the passer call and moved the ball 15 yards closer to end zone, leading to the 45 yard field goal that ultimately won the game. That penalty, one which most would categorize as careless, seemed to cost the Bengals the game and a chance at the Super Bowl, the holy grail of professional football.
Obviously, there were many other ways the game could have been decided had Ossai not made a really bad decisions at the worst possible time. The Chiefs might have gained 10 quick yards on the next play and won on a slightly longer field goal. They might have thrown the ball in the endzone and won on a last second touchdown. And, not to be forgotten, the Chiefs might have simply won the game in overtime. Any of those three scenarios are examples of how the game’s final outcome would not have been changed by one really bad play by Joseph Ossai, even if it did still determine its fate.
Quite often when a coach tries to defend a last second mistake or failure, they’ll point to the myriad of other moments in the game that could have otherwise changed its trajectory and outcome. Some of them are pretty easy, like not letting the Chiefs run back the final punt to almost midfield. Others are less linear, like converting more third downs or not letting the Chiefs control the line of scrimmage early in the game. Those explanations, while somewhat true, spread the blame to the whole instead of one, reinforcing the idea that football is the ultimate team game and you succeed and fail as a collective. If nothing else, that allows for a much cleaner metaphor for life, even if it isn’t always true.
Because that’s the problem with sports, and life I suppose. Some moments are simply more important than others. As a close game moves towards its climax, each play, and every part of every play starts to matter a little more, with high risk/rewards and less margin for error. It’s kind of like the entire trip to the hospital is important, but the point where the surgeon is actually putting in the new heart is really winning time. It’s also likely what separates elite athletes, which to be clear is every NFL player, including Joseph Ossai, and transcendent ones, like Patrick Mahomes. So even though there were a lot of different ways that the Bengals might have won or lost the game, the one that’s most apparent involves a really bad late hit on a quarterback. Which means that even though Bengals head coach Zac Taylor might say it wasn’t one play that lost the game, for better or worse, it kind of was.
That’s unfortunately a tough reality to swallow for Joseph Ossai, who will probably never forget this one play out of thousands in his football career. And also why one play can truly cost you the game.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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