WASHINGTON — With the Washington Redskins enjoying a Sunday free from football, the Baltimore Ravens became the game featured in most households around the greater Washington, D.C. region.
It was a game that the Ravens led start to finish, but the final 11 seconds of the game offered a look at a bizarre loophole that still exists in the NFL rulebook.
Lined up on their own 22-yard-line, holding a seven-point advantage, the Ravens snapped the ball to punter Sam Koch with the Bengals special teams lined up in a punt block formation. But rather than take two steps and punt the ball downfield, Koch handled the snap and backed up like a quarterback on a deep drop.
As he dropped back toward his own goal line, the blockers in front of him wreaked havoc on would-be tacklers. If the moment looked like a thing out of The Replacements or The Longest Yard, that’s because it was. The Ravens blockers were intentionally committing egregious holding calls while Koch danced around:
This is a “take safety” play, called in when a team has greater than two-point advantage and needs to kill time more than prevent points. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh cut his teeth in the NFL coaching special teams for the Philadelphia Eagles and this is a play that was used to secure a Super Bowl victory against his brother.
The only thing that could have backfired is if a defender gets through and chases Koch, as Culliver did in the Super Bowl. So the Ravens made sure that didn’t happen again, learning a lesson from 2012.
“We know what we did wrong in the Super Bowl,” Koch told the media after the game. “We kind of learned from it and just made sure that everybody did what they needed to and held on as long as they could and ended up winning the game.”
The game can’t end on a defensive penalty, but it can on an offensive penalty. Therefore, no need to free kick the ball after the safety. Game over.
“Part of the deal was just identifying all of their men because if we misidentify on the count and leave one guy running through there, he’s going to get to Sam, and there’s going to be very little time off the clock,” Harbaugh told the media after the game. “Everybody did a great job of communicating.”
According to the NFL rulebook, there’s nothing wrong with what the Ravens did. But intentionally taking advantage of the rules can run you afoul with officials if the play is run more than once. The Washington Post‘s Mark Maske got clarification from the NFL league offices:
A “palpably unfair act” is the NFL’s equivalent of a flagrant foul, committed when the results of the foul would be less than the result of the play had the unfair act not occurred. The rule exists at all levels of competitive football, although it is used so rarely that most fans aren’t even aware of its existence.
Apparently, the Ravens were permitted to get away with this “take safety” play once, but not if they had to run the play again. The penalty for doing so could have been as much as forfeiture of the game.