I think the best thing about Todd Gurley’s mistake is that you can see that he knows he’s making it. When an athlete does the wrong thing or makes a bad decision we like to call it a ‘mental error,’ and probably Gurley’s mistake was such an error. A drop in focus, a failure to properly consider the situation beforehand, a lapse of judgement. A whatever.
By the time he actually made his fatal stumble into the end zone, however, you could no longer call it a mental mistake. Gurley’s brain had figured out what was going on and was fighting hard against both his downhill instinct and years of training. Outnumbered, it lost, and Gurley and the Atlanta Falcons fell into a game-losing touchdown:
Todd Gurley tried to stop from scoring to run the clock out, but couldn't hold up.— ESPN (@espn) October 25, 2020
The Lions scored the game-winning TD with 0 seconds on the clock.
Football is uniquely and wonderfully broken. Sure, several other sports get weird and ragged once you zoom too closely into the rules, but by and large that weirdness is about officiating the game rather than the game itself. Not so with football. The intricate balance of points, possession, clock and field position, combined with the discrete nature of play and tiered scoring, turns up chaotic, game-breaking edge conditions.
This was one of those edge conditions. In the closing minutes of their game against the Detroit Lions, down 16-14, the Falcons had things well in hand. They were inside field goal range and in control of the ball. All they had to do was to keep things moving, burn off some clock and then kick a game-winner. Simple.
What they did not want to do was score a touchdown. Despite a successful two-point conversion to put the Falcons up 22-16, doing so gave the ball back to the Lions with just enough time for Matt Stafford to drive down the field and score themselves, handing Detroit a win and the Falcons a loss which would be far more implausible if it hadn’t happened to, well, the Falcons, who’ve made a habit of blowing games in hilarious fashion.
This little problem is what Gurley was working out in real time as he busted through first the gap the Lions had left and then Will Harris’ attempted tackle. The solution comes to him only after he’s failed the test, shifting his weight just far forward enough that he can’t hit the turf before the ball crosses the plane. It’s a tragic little vignette which could only happen in a game where the rules are tuned juuuuuuust a little bit wrong. (Or right, if you like the idea of teams trying not to score, which in fairness, I do.)
When something like this happens in other sports — the best example I can think of is when an international soccer game between Barbados and Grenada devolved into chaos — it’s because some committee somewhere bolted on an ill-considered rule to the rest of the game. For them, it’s a passing problem.
For football, the disease is endemic, baked into its soul. The delicate structure of the sport, the one that slathers the endless permutations of strategy over of brutal violence to give us one of modernity’s most curiously watchable spectacles, can only function as normal if, sometimes, it sacrifices Todd Gurley and the Falcons to its fiendish metagame.
Lovely, isn’t it?