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Why was Gunner Olszewski’s punt return touchdown called back? Let referee Bill Vinovich explain

Related: Patriots vs Cardinals recap: Last-second 20-17 win keeps New England’s playoff hopes alive

NFL: NOV 29 Cardinals at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Gunner Olszewski’s second season with the New England Patriots has been a disappointment so far. His limited contributions as a wide receiver did not tip the scales, and neither did his work as a return man on kickoffs and punts. To make matters worse, he lost the kickoff role to practice squad call-up Donte Moncrief against the Arizona Cardinals — and Moncrief quickly delivered a 53-yard runback in the game.

Olszewski, however, showed up as well when he ran back a punt in the early third quarter for an 82-yard touchdown. Or so it seemed.

The play, after all, drew a flag against the Patriots: rookie linebacker Anfernee Jennings was penalized for an illegal blindside block. While the runback still went into the books as a 43-yard gain and Olszewski’s longest of the season, the score was put off the board and New England eventually had to drive for a field goal rather than a touchdown — a difference that could have been crucial in a three-point game.

The flag against Jennings was a controversial one, though, with the broadcast crew disagreeing and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick sharing their opinion on the field. So, why was the penalty called? Let referee Bill Vinovich explain (transcript via the Patriots):

Question: It looked like two members of the crew threw flags on the blindside block penalty on New England linebacker Anfernee Jennings that negated a touchdown on a punt return in the third quarter. What did you see that led to that call?

Vinovich: “There were actually three flags thrown on that play. It was a block back towards his own end line, with forceable contact.”

Question: In a situation like that, where the player that was blocked appears to still be alive as a potential tackler of the returner, what are officials looking for in the player blocking him to stay within the rules?

Vinovich: ”He would either have to shield him or use his hands.”

At the end of the day, the call was certainly a close one. Most importantly, though, it was one that ultimately did not matter all too much from the Patriots’ perspective: they still won regardless of Olszewski’s touchdown that was called back.