Officials at Sunday's New York Jets-Cincinnati Bengals game had their hearts in the right place.
Their heads? They appeared to be elsewhere.
A blatant error in the name of player safety cost the Bengals a rightful chance at a final possession in their 34-31 loss to the Jets. With 2:00 remaining, Jets quarterback Mike White looked to running back Ty Johnson in the flat on a third-and-11 play from the New York 21-yard line. The play never stood a chance.
Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton sniffed it out and tackled Johnson for a 1-yard loss. The play should have resulted in the Jets facing fourth-and-12 from the New York 20-yard line with around 1:50 remaining and the Bengals holding three timeouts — more than enough time for an offense featuring the Joe Burrow-Ja'Marr Chase connection to score a game-tying field goal or a go-ahead touchdown.
Would-be Bengals stop ends up a Jets first down
But they never got the chance. A yellow flag nullified the stop and awarded the Jets a first down. They capitalized by running out the clock to secure the upset and victory for White in his debut as an NFL starter.
Flag was right, but wrong player was punished
The penalty? Unnecessary roughness. Hilton and Johnson made helmet-to-helmet contact on the tackle, and line judge Tripp Sutter flagged Hilton for the infraction, setting the Jets up with first down at their own 35-yard line.
Sutter was right to throw a flag. The helmet-to-helmet collision is the exact kind of brain-damage inducing violence the NFL is desperately attempting to legislate out of the game. He just penalized the wrong player.
Replay clearly shows Hilton lowering his body to attempt a legal tackle targeting Johnson's thigh pads. Johnson — at the very last moment — lowered his head, which initiated the helmet-to-helmet collision that put the health of both players at risk.
It's exactly the kind of scenario former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier described when speaking with Yahoo Sports about player safety last week.
"This man was literally just running at me full speed, did jackrabbit-like moves on me with quickness, then he drops his center of gravity from 6-foot, 6-foot-2 to being 5 feet — me hitting this guy in the head — there’s no way in hell I tried to hit this guy in the head," Shazier said, describing a hypothetical scenario where a defender is improperly flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit.
"It’s almost like you get in trouble for playing defense. ... If we’re talking about player safety, the NFL has to do a better job of counting everybody’s safety the same. They don’t do that. Football in general — when it comes to safety — I feel the NFL, they focus on quarterback and offensive safety way more than they focus on defensive safety."
It's almost as if Shazier said that after watching Hilton get penalized on Sunday. But he didn't. He said it last week. Because the NFL's default switch is to penalize defensive players in the name of player safety, even when offensive players are clearly at fault.
It's the conclusion that Sutter reached on Sunday to the Bengals' detriment. And to be fair to Sutter, that's a very difficult distinction to diagnose in real time. He sees and hears two helmets violently clash and has to throw a flag because brain health is at risk. Somebody had to be blamed, so the Bengals paid the price.
And that's not acceptable. The NFL must figure out how to protect player safety without automatically flagging the defense with game-altering penalties. If the answer is to review such plays to ensure that they're called correctly, so be it. Nobody's clamoring for more replay in football. But if plays involving brain health and 15-yard penalties that alter game outcomes don't warrant getting right with an extra look, then what does?