The New England Patriots’ game against the Kansas City Chiefs was a defensive affair in the first half, with neither team being able to find the end zone even once. It would therefore have been fitting had the Patriots’ defense come up with the game’s first TD. It did not, however, as a controversial call by referee Tony Corrente prevented what could have been a scoop-and-score by linebacker Shilique Calhoun.
Let’s start at the beginning, though.
Up 6-3 and facing a 3rd-and-4 at his own 42-yard line, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes dropped back to pass in an attempt to keep the series alive. Second-year Patriot Chase Winovich, however, was able to get to the reigning Super Bowl MVP and sack him for a loss of seven yards. The official game book describes the play as follows:
3-4-KC 42 (6:22) (Shotgun) P.Mahomes sacked at KC 35 for -7 yards (C.Winovich).
What this short line does not mention, though, is that the football came loose and was seemingly picked up by the aforementioned Calhoun. With little more than green grass in front of him, the linebacker could very well have scored on the play. The only problem was that it was already blown dead at the time: Corrente had blown the whistle, seemingly prematurely.
Bill Belichick, however, decided not to challenge the play despite evidence suggesting he had a solid case. Why did the Patriots’ head coach keep the red flag in his sock? He explained his decision making during his postgame video conference call.
“They called forward progress and that he was down,” said Belichick when asked about the play. “You can’t challenge that. They called him down, they called forward progress.”
While television audiences heard Jim Nantz, Tony Romo and CBS rules expert Gene Steratore discuss the play, Belichick was given an explanation by the officiating crew that forced him to accept the call on the field however controversial it might have been. Instead of fumble and potential recovery and return, the Patriots therefore had to send their punt coverage team on the field.
While Belichick would not talk in any greater detail about the play, Tony Corrente did after the game.
“I felt that he was being controlled quite a bit prior to him actually going to the ground,” the referee said according to the NFL’s pool report. “And as he was being controlled, other players were coming in at him. And so with those other players bearing down on him, a quarterback is considered in the grasp and his forward progress is considered stopped when I feel as though the player’s safety is being jeopardized.
“And that was the case in this instance. So, rather than allow him to get hit by a second and third player, we shut it down and considered it forward progress at that point.”
Football is a game of inches, as they say. It is also a game of seconds: had Corrente waited just a bit longer to blow the play dead on his whistle, the Patriots might have made a big defensive play. The call was hardly the reason that they lost, but it adds to the “missed opportunities” theme that haunted them throughout their 26-10 loss against the Chiefs.