There is universal panning of the officiating crew in the Rams-Lions game for an apparent wrong-way foul. Rams linebacker Ernest Jones attempted to crash the line of scrimmage and pulled up short, but then crossed into the neutral zone. Rather than call a neutral zone infraction on the Rams, down judge Jim Mello came in to indicate it was a false start on Lions offensive lineman Taylor Decker — yes, the one we talked about at length a few weeks ago.
My initial analysis was the same conclusion everyone else reached, that this was absolutely a foul on the Rams. But it didn’t make sense watching the video that a veteran official would call it so wrong. Was there something else that I was missing?
Turns out there is, and the replay angles given by NBC give a hint that there was something else going on.
The sightline from the replay angle was slightly obscured by the receiver, but Mello had a better look down the line at Decker. While Decker stays absolutely still and there is motion from his left hand. Although the shot is block partially, it looks like Decker flexed his hands.
This is seemingly not a big deal for a false start, players move their hands all the time and make adjustments. This is true, but the officiating department is also aware that linemen on both sides of the ball try to do something subtle to draw an opponent into a foul. So an offensive lineman might make little adjustments early in the game that are slow and deliberate, and therefore not a foul, but then catch an opponent with a quick and abrupt movement that isn’t detected by officials.
A clip from the training tape senior vice president of officiating Walt Anderson disseminated this week was obtained by Football Zebras. In the clip, Anderson points out to playoff-bound officials to be vigilant for offensive linemen who flick their hands to draw a defender into the neutral zone.
To compare the hand movement of Taylor Decker to what was actually shown to officials just days ago to be vigilant for… pic.twitter.com/Xsr78SHBVk— Fᴏᴏᴛʙᴀʟʟ Zᴇʙʀᴀs (@footballzebras) January 15, 2024
So, I will actually leave this as a qualified no decision, even though I have my opinion on the call. Compare what is in these two clips and draw your conclusions. But there obviously was a reason that the false start was called, whether or not it was right.
Additionally, it could be argued that Jones was not drawn into entering the neutral zone by Decker’s actions. However, the movement by Decker preceded Jones second surge that marked when he entered the neutral zone. The standard is not whether there is a correlation to the movement vs. the neutral zone violation. It simply is which occurred first.
Whether you think this movement is enough to tip to a false start, Decker tried to induce a free first down on a 4th & less-than-5, and the officials flagged him for it. And this is just coincidental that it is Decker, so this isn’t piling on him. This happens frequently enough and evades detection enough that Anderson pointed this out to officials. Anderson is probably aware of this because coaches are sending him messages that it is happening.
And in the end, whether you agree that it was a false start or not, Mello saw something that resembled something on the training tape, and Decker’s movement forced Mello to make a decision in the moment.