More than a few Kansas City Chiefs fans were scratching their heads at this one.
At first glance, this defied all common sense. We’ve seen it hundreds of times. The quarterback spikes the ball. The clock stops because there are less than five minutes remaining in the half, and it’s an incomplete pass. The team gives up a down in exchange for stopping the clock.
So how could this have been intentional grounding?
If you were watching on TV, this was further confused by the commentators initially thinking that the penalty was called because Mahomes snapped the ball before the officials were ready. Nor did it help that nobody in the booth had ever seen anything like it.
And if you were there in person, you’re probably still trying to figure it out.
So let’s break it down.
With 14 seconds remaining in the half, the Chiefs are at their own 35-yard line. They have one timeout left. The Chiefs’ intent is clear: leading 21-15, they want to get at least a field goal on the board before the half. So if possible, they need to hang on to their last timeout, so they can use it to stop the clock and get the field goal team on the field.
Mahomes completes a 23-yard pass to Chris Conley near the right hash mark at the Cleveland 42. From that spot, it will be a 59-yard field goal for Harrison Butker. Conley is tackled on the field, and there are just nine seconds left.
Normally, the Chiefs would use their final timeout to stop the clock, and then decide if they should try a field goal from there, or run a play to the sideline and get out of bounds, getting a few yards closer to the goal posts for the try.
But the clock is already stopped because there is a flag on the play. To their credit, the Chiefs realize that Cleveland’s Myles Garrett has jumped offsides, and they don’t need to use their timeout; Garrett has essentially gifted them a timeout. The penalty is declined, and the Chiefs line up for the next play. The play clock is running, but the game clock is not; it won’t start until the ball is snapped.
When the ball is snapped, Mahomes spikes the ball, giving up the down and taking one second off the clock. There’s no way to characterize this as anything but a mental mistake by Mahomes. There’s no need to stop the game clock because it is already stopped.
So it was clearly a mistake. But was it intentional grounding? No. And yes.
The NFL rulebook says that it is intentional grounding to throw a pass to the ground with no obvious receiver nearby when a quarterback is “facing an imminent loss of yardage because of pressure from the defense.” Obviously, that wasn’t the case here.
But the rulebook also says that a quarterback may only spike the ball “to stop a running game clock.” So while the spike wasn’t intentional grounding per se, it was still in violation of the rules. And as sometimes happens in these situations — where referees have to call some kind of penalty on a play that falls in a gray area between two rules — they picked one to enforce.
And that penalty calls for 10 yards, a loss of down — and when it occurs past the two-minute warning, a 10-second runoff. It would have ended the half right then and there, but Andy Reid wisely reminded the officials that the Chiefs had the option to give up a timeout instead of the 10 seconds. So play continued.
Still, in the immediate aftermath, it mystified Chiefs coach Andy Reid.
“Listen, I take pride in knowing the rules, and this one must have been in the archives,” he said after the game. “Whoever created it, I need to talk to him. I’m not sure I understand the logic behind it. [Line Judge] Mark [Steinkerchner] would know it, he’s been around, he did our Super Bowl game a long time ago, and he’s a pretty sharp guy. But he pulled that one out of left field on me.”
But despite what you may have heard, it has happened before.
In a 2016 Monday Night Football game between the Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks, Buffalo spiked the ball because their field goal kicker Dan Carpenter had been injured on a field goal attempt. Since the injury occurred with less than two minutes remaining, the Bills were charged with an injury timeout, and by rule, Carpenter had to leave the field for at least one play. So the Bills spiked the ball on a stopped clock, so that Carpenter could come back on the field and try again.
No intentional grounding penalty was called on the Bills. But it’s easy to see why there should have been some kind of penalty, because the Bills essentially skirted the rules. It would be reasonable to think that after the 2016 game, NFL referees were instructed that in such a situation, teams should be penalized.
So if Sunday's game was a situation where the referees just picked a penalty to enforce, they probably did it at the direction of the league.
We could argue that the NFL should have an “impermissible spike” rule with a different penalty to be assessed — maybe just five yards, for example.
Or we could argue that it shouldn’t be a penalty at all. If teams make this mistake, they’re already giving up a down and a second of game clock time in a situation where — by definition — both of those are critical losses.
But as we see in the case of the 2016 game, there is potential for abuse in a spike play. For example... if there’s no penalty for a spike when the game clock is stopped, what would stop a quarterback -- with no timeouts available -- from spiking the ball when he sees that the opposing defense is lined up in a way that will crush the offensive play that’s been called?
That’s just one example that occurs to me. There are undoubtedly others.
In the final analysis, Mahomes just made a mistake. As it turned out, it wasn’t a very costly one. The Chiefs still won the game easily. And Mahomes is unlikely to ever make that mistake again.
Note: After this article was published, I received an e-mail from a reader who pointed out a reference in the casebook section of the official 2018 NFL rules. The casebook has 93 pages of examples to help officials know how to interpret the rules in specific game situations.
Think of it this way: the NFL rulebook is the law (voted on by the owners), but the casebook shows how the NFL’s head of officiating thinks the law should be interpreted — the same way Congress writes laws, and the Supreme Court decides how those laws should be interpreted.
Here’s the reference, which is A.R. 8.90 on page 38 of the casebook:
INTENTIONAL GROUNDING - SPIKE TO CONSUME TIME
First-and-10 on B30. The game clock is stopped with six seconds left in the first half. QBA1 takes the snap and immediately spikes the ball into the ground to take one second off the clock so that a field-goal attempt will run out the clock.
Ruling: Half over. Intentional grounding and a 10-second runoff. A QB can only spike the ball to stop a running game clock. An attempt to take time off the clock is intentional grounding.
You can check it out for yourself here:
Many thanks to Neil for providing this reference. In his e-mail, Neil also said this:
I know from officiating basketball that often times the NCAA casebook is used just as much as the official rules to make decisions because there are so many edge cases.