NFL Week 7 Blunders: Dirk Koetter lucky his illegal challenge didn’t cost the Buccaneers

Dirk Koetter got lucky. 

He got lucky that he still had one timeout left. He got lucky that his kicker, Chandler Catanzaro, was unfazed by a delay. He got lucky that he won an NFL game without knowing the rules. On Sunday, the Buccaneers beat the Browns in overtime in a game between arguably two of the worst coaches in football, a game that saw Koetter make a mistake Hue Jackson would’ve been proud of.

As the Buccaneers lined up for a 59-yard field goal on fourth-and-15 with 1:55 remaining in overtime, their coach threw his challenge flag. 

The game paused as the officials ran over to Koetter to inform him that all reviews in overtime must be initiated by the booth. He wasn’t allowed to challenge the play — a 14-yard completion to DeSean Jackson that moved the Buccaneers into the fringes of field-goal range. Just as the game was about to resume, the officials announced that the Buccaneers were docked their final timeout as a result of Koetter’s infraction. After the mess got sorted out, Catanzaro nailed the kick to give the Buccaneers an overtime win over the Browns.

Koetter got lucky. He got lucky his red flag didn’t result in a yellow flag. If the Buccaneers had been out of timeouts, that illegal challenge would’ve resulted in a 15-yard penalty that would’ve pushed the Buccaneers out of field-goal range. 

From the NFL rulebook (emphasis added):

A team may not challenge a reviewable play: 

  • (a) after the two-minute warning of each half; 
  • (b) throughout any overtime period; 
  • (c) after committing a foul that delays the next snap; and (d) after exhausting all of its challenges or timeouts. I

If a team initiates a challenge when it is not permitted to do so, it will be charged a timeout. 

Penalty: For initiating a challenge when a team has exhausted its timeouts: Loss of 15 yards

If the Buccaneers had been out of timeouts, they would’ve been penalized 15 yards to make it fourth-and-30. Instead of trying a 74-yard field goal or going for a fourth-and-forever, they would’ve been forced to punt, giving the Browns a chance to win or settling for a tie.  

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Koetter also got lucky his kicker didn’t miss that kick, because if he had missed, we’d be spending the next week talking about Koetter accidentally icing his own kicker. And if the Buccaneers had missed that kick, the Browns would’ve been in excellent field position to go win the game with a kick of their own. The Buccaneers having a timeout and making the kick shouldn’t absolve Koetter, a head coach for two-plus seasons, of not knowing the rules.

Justin Tucker misses 

Normally, this column will be limited to decision-making mistakes, but an exception will be made for Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, who missed an extra point that would’ve tied the game with less than half a minute to play in their game against the Saints.

Kickers miss extra points. It happens. When they miss game-tying extra points late in the fourth quarter, they become especially notable. When that miss marks the first miss of a arguably the best kicker in the NFL history’s career, it becomes an entire story. That missed extra point was Tucker’s first miss in his career, which has included 222 makes before the end of Sunday’s game, and it cost the Ravens a chance to beat one of the best teams in football. 

He was just as shocked as you were.

So often, Tucker has been the Ravens’ best offensive weapon. On Sunday, he was their downfall.

To his credit, Tucker handled the aftermath in the best possible way. And let’s face it, if there’s ever a kicker to shrug off a miss of that magnitude, it’s Tucker. If anyone deserves a pass, it’s Tucker.

Ravens burn both challenges on first drive 

About that Ravens’ loss. Let’s talk about John Harbaugh’s usage of challenges. 

He burned both of his two challenges on the opening drive of the game. The Ravens didn’t have any challenges after the 6:31 mark of the first quarter. 

Harbaugh used his first challenge of the game on a spot that gave the Saints an early third-down conversion. He actually won that challenge, which set up a fourth-and-short, but it didn’t matter because the Saints went for the fourth down and picked up a first down. On that same defensive series, Harbaugh challenged that Saints running back Alvin Kamara fumbled. He lost that challenge, which meant the Ravens were out of challenges for the remainder of the game.

That’s not ideal.

The Titans’ play-calling at the goal line

After watching Justin Tucker miss his first extra point to blow the Ravens’ game-tying drive, it’s easy to understand why Mike Vrabel went for two at the end of the Titans’ one-point loss to the Chargers. 

I’ve got no issues with the decision to win the game in regulation instead of playing for overtime against MVP candidate Philip Rivers. If the Titans had made the extra point, they still would’ve needed to stop Rivers and the Chargers from scoring at the end of regulation. If they forced overtime, their fate might’ve been determined by a coin toss.

The decision to go for the win can be defended. The Titans’ play-calling, however, can be called into question. 

We’ll start with the play that got the Titans to within a point. Why the Titans were calling a low-percentage passing play on the biggest play of the game is beyond explanation. They could’ve used a sneak or some sort of zone-read play with mobile quarterback Marcus Mariota. They were lucky to even score the touchdown that put them in a position to go for two. They needed a juggling catch to get to that point.

But they scored a touchdown nonetheless. Then they went for the win. And this was the play-call.

They went shotgun from the 2-yard line. And then Mariota had to scramble around for eight seconds before throwing a prayer. 

A penalty in the end zone gave the Titans second life. The ball was moved to the 1-yard line. So what did the Titans do?

They went empty, not even presenting the illusion of a running play.

In situations like these, teams should always ask themselves: What would Bill Belichick do?

Belichick would’ve called for a quarterback sneak, because it’s as undefeated as a play call will ever get. You’re one lousy yard away. Don’t get cute. Don’t get fancy. 

At the very least, make the defense respect the threat of a run. Don’t go empty on the goal line.

Anthony Lynn’s timeout usage

The Chargers won, but Anthony Lynn’s management during that final defensive series deserves scrutiny.

Lynn needed to be preparing for the very likely possibility that his team would have a chance to score points to win the game late. What he needed to do was burn his timeouts to give Rivers a chance to mount a game-winning drive in the event the Titans tied the game or took the lead. 

Again, the Chargers led by seven. They had all three of their timeouts remaining. On the other side of the two-minute warning, Titans running back Derrick Henry carried the ball from the 12-yard line to the 8-yard line. When he got tackled, 1:56 was showing on the game clock as the Titans prepared for a third-and-4. Instead of calling timeout, stopping the clock, and leaving as much as possible for Rivers to counter the Titans’ eventual score with a score of his own, Lynn let the clock tick down. On third down, Mariota completed a pass inside the 5-yard line to pick up a first down. Just over a minute remained. Lynn still refused to take a timeout. The Titans let the clock run until just inside of 50 seconds, which is when they ran their next play. The Chargers didn’t use a timeout until Mariota got stopped at the 1-yard line with 35 seconds remaining. 

There was no reason for the Chargers to save their timeouts. The Titans, already inside the 5-yard line, weren’t in any hurry to score. They weren’t pressed for time. The Chargers should’ve been in time-saving mode.

Consider what would’ve happened if the Titans had taken the lead or settled for an extra point. Rivers would’ve been left with 31 seconds to manufacture points. If the Chargers had used their timeouts, they wouldn’t have lost all of that time the Titans burned. 

The Chargers won, but that doesn’t mean Lynn should escape scrutiny. Process matters more than results.

Jason Garrett did it again

Will Brinson already wrote about this at length in Sorting the Sunday Pile, but Cowboys coach Jason Garrett’s blunder needs to be repeated as often as possible. That’s how bad it was. Again, you can read Brinson’s version by clicking on the link above. But here’s the TLDR version.

The Cowboys trailed the Redskins by three points. They had the ball at the Redskins’ 31-yard line. Twelve seconds remained. A review that gave the Cowboys time to plan their next move had just wrapped up. Instead of throwing the ball with the intent of winning the game with a touchdown or throwing a pass that turned a difficult, but makable kick into a chip shot, the Cowboys called a running play up the middle that gained two yards. They settled for a lengthy field goal even though they still had a timeout remaining.

The Cowboys called their final timeout and lined up for a field goal. Before the snap, they were penalized five yards. Their kicker, Brett Maher, proceeded to drill the upright from 52 yards out. 

Once again, Garrett’s conservative approach cost the Cowboys. Instead of playing for the win, he played for the tie.

Alex Smith runs out of bounds

The only reason the Cowboys still had that last timeout remaining was because Alex Smith ran out of bounds. The Redskins led by three points with a 1:26 to go. The Cowboys had one timeout left. The Redskins faced a third-and-9. 

Give the Redskins credit — after two straight running plays — for letting Smith drop back to pass in an attempt to win the game with the first down. Except that, after leaving the pocket, Smith ran out of bounds, which allowed the Cowboys to save their third timeout for their final series.

Just slide!

It didn’t end up coming back to bite the Redskins, but that would’ve been a costly play had the Cowboys known what to do with that final timeout. Smith, who is supposed to be a smart veteran quarterback, got bailed out by Garrett.

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