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This nullified touchdown perfectly captures the NFL’s beautiful chaos

The Miami Dolphins didn’t get a touchdown when they didn’t kick, because their legal formation was illegal. Football is great.

In Franz Kafka’s masterpiece The Trial, we find that Josef K. has managed to get himself in trouble with the authorities without having done very much wrong. He (and we) are plunged into a dazzling nonsense of quasi-legal bureaucracy, in which Josef gets repeatedly lost, un-helped and mocked for not having sufficient respect for an arbitrary and inscrutable process.

Comparing the NFL’s officiating to The Trial is of course unfair, since there is a) a rulebook and b) a vaguely coherent narrative which flows from that rulebook and c) we definitely know what ‘a catch’ is. But, on occasion, the beats and rhythms of an NFL game mesh perfectly with the comic absurdity that characterizes authority for poor Josef K. I believe that the Miami Dolphins’ un-touchdown is one such play.

A fake field goal or punt on fourth and goal from the one-yard line plunges us immediately and wholeheartedly into the realm of the surreal. Indeed, Miami is attempting to enforce a whole new reality upon the Bengals, who are fully aware, what with the Dolphins taking up punt formation 50 inches from goal, that something is amiss but have no idea what shape the weirdness will assume. (This is sort of how I imagine the virtual people of the Fumble Dimension feel about whatever it is Kofie and Jon are doing to them in any given episode.)

Miami’s aim here was to perplex and unsettle their opponents. And it worked! Telegraphing their fake punt/field goal/whatever confounded the poor Bengals so thoroughly that definitely-not-punting Matt Haack took a direct snap and idled his way through the discombobulated defense for a touchdown. And then things got properly silly*: the touchdown was nullified for an illegal formation.

*I positively refuse to say ‘Kafkaesque’, which is a ridiculous, ugly word. Perhaps Kafkaïc?

A non-punt non-touchdown is interesting on purely semantic grounds, but what makes this even more interesting is that the formation looks ... legal? So the Dolphins had a non-punt touchdown transmogrified into a non-punt non-touchdown by a legal-illegal formation; which I think is absurd enough to have pleased the imaginary version of Franz Kafka who was super into the NFL.

The Dolphins’ actual crime here was, according to my old friend Rodger Sherman, a failure of process: “The linemen wearing ineligible numbers who wound up in eligible positions didn’t report as eligible.” Obviously, they should have, but the fact that they have to at all and that failure to do so cost Miami points is inherently pleasing. Paperwork is a part of every sport, but only in the NFL could it ever live so close to the surface.

Miami may have been the ones specifically sanctioned without having done very much wrong, but they’re not really the victims here, especially as they ended up winning the game 19-7. In The Trial, Josef K. is meant as a stand-in for the author or the audience or perhaps both; in this case it’s us who were denied the pleasure of watching* the Bengals concede to one of the silliest trick plays in recent history. I, for one, definitely hadn’t done anything worth denying me that pleasure. At least, not that I’m aware of.

*Strictly speaking we did watch it, but the flag reduces the whole thing to the quality of pleasant dream, amusing in the moment yet irreparably damaged by contact with brute reality.

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