Analysis: Officiating again stole the spotlight even though the call against the Chiefs was correct

Travis Kelce and Kadarius Toney had combined to make the play of the season to give the Kansas City Chiefs a late lead when the celebration quickly turned to silence.

An offside penalty on Toney negated the score.

Anytime there’s a big play in an NFL game, announcers are quick to point out whether a yellow flag has been thrown. Fans can’t get too excited until they hear on television or see in person that there’s no penalty on the play. Players often hesitate to celebrate.

The quality of officiating in the NFL is inconsistent. But that’s nothing new. It’s been that way for decades. Even with instant replay, plenty of calls are missed.

It seems every week there’s at least one blown call or non-call in an important spot that helps change the outcome of a game.

Fans whine. Players and coaches complain. The league sometimes admits mistakes and admonishes referees. Then, it happens again the following week and the week after that.

Overall, penalties are up this year but not by much. Entering Sunday night’s Eagles-Cowboys game, an average of 14.4 penalty flags were thrown per game. It was 13.1 last season.

Kansas City Chiefs WR Kadarius Toney runs to the end zone after catching a lateral from Travis Kelce during game against the Buffalo Bills Dec. 10. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

The NFC East prime-time showdown started out like a flagfest with a national television audience watching. Officials threw eight flags in the first quarter and 17 total penalties were accepted in Dallas’ 33-13 victory over Philadelphia.

In Kansas City, the game-changing call wasn’t popular but it was accurate. Regardless, officiating is dominating headlines instead of the players’ performance on the field.

With the Chiefs trailing the Buffalo Bills 20-17 and under two minutes left, Kelce caught a pass over the middle from Patrick Mahomes and then threw the ball backward across the field to Toney, who ran the final 25 yards to finish off the 49-yard backyard touchdown.

However, Toney had clearly lined up offside. It’s a call officials rarely made before this season. There have been 13 offensive offside penalties in 2023, including a few against Philadelphia on the “tush push” play. There were only seven total in the previous three seasons combined.

The Chiefs hadn’t noticed that referees are calling offensive offside more frequently.

Mahomes was fuming on the sideline, screaming at officials and had to be held back. Even coach Andy Reid uncharacteristically pointed out his displeasure with the call unprovoked after the game.

“I never use any of this as excuses, but normally I get a warning before something like that happens in a big game,” Reid said. ”(It’s) a bit embarrassing in the National Football League for that to take place. … Normally, yeah, if it’s even close you get a warning. The head coach gets a warning, I mean that normally — I don’t know, I didn’t have a protractor out there. But it’s a bit embarrassing.”

Referee Carl Cheffers said officials will give coaches alignment advice if they’re asked.

“But ultimately, they are responsible for wherever they line up,” Cheffers told a pool reporter. “And, certainly, no warning is required, especially if they are lined up so far offsides where they’re actually blocking our view of the ball. So, we would give them some sort of a warning if it was anywhere close, but this particular one is beyond a warning.”

Cheffers wasn’t sure if any warnings for offside were issued during the game but it didn’t matter in this case.

“If it’s egregious enough, it would be beyond a warning,” he said. “So really regardless of whether or not he was warned at other times during the day, if it was an egregious alignment to where he was over the ball — whether he had warnings or not — it would still be a foul.”

Last week, referees missed an obvious pass interference by the Packers against Chiefs wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling near the 5-yard line in the final minute of Green Bay’s 27-19 win.

“I know as fans you want to see the guys on the field decide the game and that’s why last week I didn’t say anything about the flag that didn’t get called on Marquez,” Mahomes said. “I mean, they’re human, they make mistakes but it’s every week we’re talking about something and all I can do is go out there and give everything I have. … It’s just tough to swallow.”

It’s always tougher on the team that loses.

In this case, the call was right. Still, it’s too bad the penalty stole the spotlight from Josh Allen, who saved Buffalo’s season with a spectacular effort.

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