The Cardinals were trying to spike the ball to set up a potential game-winning 46-yard field goal by Chandler Catanzaro. But before they could snap the ball, the Bengals were flagged for a penalty few NFL fans were familiar with.
DL Domata Peko was flagged for "calling signals out in an effort to draw the offense into a false start." The unsportsmanlike conduct penalty pushed the ball half the distance to the goal, turning a 46-yard attempt into a chip shot 32-yarder. Catanzaro drilled it, and dabbed, and Arizona won.
This is one of the rarer calls you'll see in an NFL game. So far as I can tell, the last time this came up was in 2012, incidentally, when the Bengals were trying a field goal against the Eagles. The Buccaneers were also flagged for the call that year.
Unlike most penalties, which we can dissect on replay later, we'd need to actually hear what was happening on the field to confirm this was the right call. We saw the Cardinals jump, but we'll just have to trust the referees' word that it was actually Peko's disconcerting signals that caused that jump.
After the game, Marvin Lewis called it a "phantom call" and said Peko was simply warning his teammates to look for the run. That said, I somewhat doubt Peko was warning his teammates to look for the run against a team attempting to stop the clock with six seconds left and no timeouts.
We can, however, confirm this rule is in the NFL rulebook. There are 24 things the NFL specifically lists as "unsportsmanlike conduct," from punching an opponent to excessive celebrations to lifting a player onto your shoulders to block a kick. And this is one of them.
j. Using acts or words by the defensive team that are designed to disconcert an offensive team at the snap. An official must blow his whistle immediately to stop play.
The offense is allowed to do whatever they want to convince the defense they're allowed to snap the ball -- this is considered gamesmanship, and when a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers becomes great at drawing the opponent offsides, we laud them.
And the defense can do a variety of things meant to distract the opponent before the snap, too. They can yell pretty much anything. They can run up to and even cross the line of scrimmage. And if their early jump does cause an opposing jump, that isn't considered unsportsmanlike conduct -- just an offsides, worth five yards.
But if the yelling they do is ruled to be simulating the opposing snap count? That's 15 yards, on par with threatening a referee. The same thing is outlawed in college football -- in fact, BYU was just called for it Saturday -- but it's put in the same category as other pre-snap violations like neutral zone infractions, and is only worth five yards.
That disparity generally makes this a very dumb mistake to make. If you actually convince the opponent to jump early is a 5-yard false start penalty. But if you get caught, the penalty is a 15-yarder. The risk is three times higher than the reward.
But the clock was running and the Cardinals didn't have any timeouts, so a false start actually would've resulted in a 10-second runoff and no game-winning field goal. That's actually a pretty reasonable gamble to take, especially considering Catanzaro has been one of the NFL's best kickers from any distance.
This made a pretty sizeable difference in the Bengals' chances of winning. This year, NFL kickers are hitting 77.5 percent of their field goals from 40-to-50 yards, and 92.3 percent of their field goals from 30-to-40 yards. This 14-yard penalty moved the attempt from the longer end of that first group into the shorter end of the second group. That's a 15-20 percent increase in the likelihood the kick was made, and therefore a 15-20 percent worse chance at getting to overtime.
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