On the fourth day of 2019, it appeared that a brand new era was set to begin for Buffalo Bills fans. They hadn’t watched their team win a playoff game in 24 years, but were now on the verge of victory.
It was overtime of the 2019 AFC Wild Card game. Josh Allen was just forced out-of-bounds at the Houston 38. It was about to be 4th and 5. Stephen Hauschka – who was already four-for-four that night, was preparing for what would’ve been a 55-yard attempt.
Then, the fans at home watched the yellow icon appear in the bottom right corner of their television screens. Fans in Houston saw the yellow flag on the turf. Referee Tony Corrente pressed his microphone to announce the infraction:
“Personal foul, blindside block, number 70. Fifteen-yard penalty, repeat third down.”
Josh Allen threw an incomplete pass on the impending 3rd and 24, and it wound up being the final pass he would throw all season. The Bills punted the ball away, the Texans kicked a field goal, and Buffalo’s season was over.
As a Bills fan, it was heartbreaking. Losing in that fashion was peak Buffalo. As such, much of the postgame commentary focused on the controversial call and the illegal blindside block rule itself.
During the 2019 offseason, around the time that Brandon Beane was working the phones and trying to sign free agents, NFL owners were in Phoenix, AZ, voting on rule changes. As part of the growing emphasis on player safety, one of the proposals intended to reduce blindside blocks. In an attempt to protect players, the owners voted to expand the definition of what would constitute a foul.
Beginning in 2019, blockers were prohibited from initiating forcible contact with an opponent with their helmet, forearm, or shoulder while moving toward their own end line (or goal line). Prior to that season, players were only flagged for a blindside block if they targeted an opponent’s head or neck area.
Understandably, the result was a dramatic increase in the number of illegal blindside block fouls. In 2018, there were seven flags. In 2019, there were 30, including the one on Cody Ford on wild card weekend.
Ultimately, the increase in blindside block penalties was too significant for the league. A few months after the Bills-Texans game, the league redefined the rule again. In short, the league added new language to decrease the amount of penalties. From 2020 on, blindside blocks would only be flagged if the player being blocked couldn’t reasonably expect such contact. As a result, the league saw nearly half as many penalties in 2020 compared to 2019, a reduction from 30 to 16.
Even though the wild card game occurred in January 2020, it was still part of the 2019 season. On the play in question, Josh Allen is flushed out of the pocket and scrambles to his right, chased by pass rusher Jacob Martin. Cody Ford -then the starting right tackle and wearing number 70 – cuts off Martin, and allows Allen to pick up four yards.
There are really three components to the 2019 rule that dictate whether or not Ford committed that infraction. All three of them must be met for an official to throw his flag.
- Does Ford use his helmet, forearm, or shoulder to initiate contact? Yes.
- Is Ford moving toward his own end line when contact is made? Probably.
- Is the contact “forcible?” Ahhhh, maybe.
I’m just glad it wasn’t me on the field that night, having just a split-second to determine whether or not the contact was forcible enough. I’m not here to argue whether it was or it wasn’t.
But then again, I don’t have to. This past April, the NFL admitted they got it wrong. When the league changed the rule in 2020, they actually cited the Ford penalty as an example of a legal block in a training video for its officials.
The penalty itself is not the point here. As with every good or bad call in a football game, both teams have to move on. The important part of the Ford penalty is that both teams have – and they’ve gone in completely opposite directions.
Buffalo received a ton of flak for their lack of playmakers in that wild card game. They left points on the board in the first half, when today’s offense normally puts teams away. Dissatisfied with the performance, Brandon Beane made a blockbuster trade for Stefon Diggs; and the following year, he led the league in receptions. Josh Allen made a huge jump and finished second in MVP voting, and the team made the conference championship game. It’s hard to say whether any of those things happen if that penalty is not called, and if Stephen Hauschka buries a 56-yarder.
Meanwhile, Houston advanced to the divisional round, where they lost to Kansas City, the eventual Super Bowl champions. The Texans were happy with their playoff win, and decided to bring back Bill O’Brien, their coach and general manager, for the 2020 season. It was a disaster even before it started. O’Brien traded DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals, lost the first four games of the season, and was fired. Houston imploded, and today are seventeen-point underdogs to a team they knocked out of the playoffs 21 months ago.
Do the Texans fire O’Brien if they lose in overtime that night? Does Deshaun Watson grow frustrated with the organization if Hopkins isn’t traded? That’s the fun part – no one knows.
And no one really knows the implications of one play – or one call – on any given Sunday. Isn’t that why we love football so much?