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2023 Wild Card Playoffs

How could a false start be so wrong? What if it wasn’t wrong?

Officials were told to be vigilant for linemen making quick hand movements



Analysis by Ben Austro

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.

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.

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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  1. Tony Dehn

    January 15, 2024 at 1:13 pm

    Ben, thank you for a more involved answer. This is a legit question, so please don’t see it as a criticism. If quick and subtle hand movement can be considered a false start, why are the movements of the Rams right guard not considered a false start? You see it often, I suspect because of the crowd noise it’s a way to communicate readiness to the center and maybe others. Some teams will tap the center on the behind, some teams use a tackle to signal. I never thought twice about it, until this call against Taylor. Can you explain, please? Is it because they are still set for a beat? I really want to understand. Thanks

  2. Anonymous

    January 16, 2024 at 12:12 pm

    Wow. What do you know? The ref saw something nobody else did, even the camera, and football zebras says the refs were right so the call is good.

    No bad call here guys.
    Football zebras is is always unbiased and always calls the refs out when they screw up (which the refs NEVER do) so if they say Decker flexed his finger, he must have.

    Good call refs.
    Great breakdown football zebras.
    If you didn’t tell us about the finger getting flexed that no one else saw… even the camera… we would all think the refs missed the call. In reality everone else in the entire world is wrong.

  3. Anonymous

    January 16, 2024 at 11:51 pm

    It’s amazing the first time we have ever seen this called is against the lions and in a playoff game. Save it for a preseason game to emphasize the new rule. Also amazing is all the hand and arm waving at the snap that is not called. Refs are their own worst enemies.

  4. Chuck

    January 17, 2024 at 11:35 am

    If you look closely you’ll see that the defense moved first before Decker flexed his fingers.

  5. Anonymous

    January 19, 2024 at 8:03 pm

    How come no one is mentioning the obvious: it is not a foul to simply enter the neutral zone as a defender. If you go over the line, and then get back, but do not get close enough to really force the offense to move, then the offensive line guys can’t simply pretend to be “startled”.

    It has gotten to where the offensive line players are doing the equivalent of flopping in basketball – anytime a defender comes across the line, they jump up like they were forced to move. They SHOULD be penalized for this, and the defense should only be called when they either are across the line AT THE SNAP or they actually contact the offensive player (or get so close they HAVE to move).

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