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Jawaan Taylor, inequitable rule enforcement, and the power of narratives
The way Taylor is being officiated is different than the rest of the NFL. It's just a fact.
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The fact that I have to write this is one of the silliest things that I’ve had to do in a career that, by its very nature, is a pretty silly one.
But, alas, here we are. And it’s time to talk about the power of narratives, how the words people say matter, and how one player has suddenly started being officiated differently than the rest of the league.
Jawaan Taylor has been penalized multiple times over the last several weeks following what could best be characterized as a monologue by commentator Chris Collinsworth on opening night. Collinsworth (who I often enjoy, for what that’s worth) spoke at a great deal of length about Taylor’s alignment and get-off during multiple stops in the action. To hear the commentary, it is a problem unique to Taylor and something unknown until that night.
Of course, that’s simply not accurate. Taylor has been playing the same way for years, including in a nationally televised playoff game in which Joey Bosa threw a fit. And he’s hardly alone. Lane Johnson and others have been noted for their alignment and get-off advantages for years, as I discussed during preseason when writing about Taylor’s first step. And the reality is that offensive tackles have been lining up farther back than the rule technically allows (the rule is that the tackle is supposed to have his helmet at/across the “belt line” of the center) for… well, years and years.
And ALSO of course, none of that history or the context of offensive line play mattered. All that mattered was that it was talked about on the broadcast at length, and none of that history or context was discussed. Which of course led to Taylor being a major topic the next week. Which THEN, of course, led to the league announcing that it was planning on “cracking down” on alignment and get-off issues for tackles. It was all incredible and yet believable for someone that has observed how narrative drives discussion regarding the NFL and sports as a whole.
The following week, Taylor was penalized multiple times (several of which were questionable, but I digress, as stuff happens) and was briefly sent to the bench by Chiefs head coach Andy Reid to regroup. Many (myself included) thought that the message had been sent and it would be over. Instead, in Week 3, the spotlight continued to shine on Taylor as he was twice called for illegal formation. It should be noted that previously in his career, Taylor (a multi-year veteran) had never been called for this penalty in 66 games.
One of those illegal formation calls cost the Chiefs a 50-yard touchdown.
Obviously this took points off the board for Kansas City, and the very next play Patrick Mahomes’ ankle was rolled on in a way that caused him temporary pain and caused every Chiefs fan watching temporary heart issues.
Mahomes was able to shake it off, but that didn’t prevent others from seeing red after looking at Taylor’s alignment prior to the play being swiftly called back (I promise that is the only sentence with any intentional references, and I did it only to make Josh and Nate happy).
Following the game, Reid and Mahomes both felt the need to speak out defending the young right tackle. Reid stated, tactfully, that Taylor might be getting picked on “just a little bit” on Sunday and that he wasn’t seeing the alignment issue. Mahomes called it “wild” and stated when he looked at the snaps he did not understand. He also noted that he watches a lot of tape and that Taylor is no deeper than the other tackles. Reid doubled down on his comments during his press availability Monday, noting that if referees are going to watch Taylor more closely they ought to be watching other OT’s more closely as well.
Forgetting for a moment whether you choose to believe Reid and Mahomes are just standing up for their guy, it’s worth noting that the league’s “crackdown” on illegal formations in particular have been limited to exclusively one offensive tackle for one team. As pointed out by 810’s Jason Anderson, not a single other OT has been flagged since the so-called “crackdown” began.
We will see what Monday Night Football brings, but the absolutely indisputable fact is that Taylor is getting called for these illegal formations and no one else is.
The next logical question, of course, is whether or not Taylor is bringing this onto himself. Perhaps Reid and Mahomes are simply vouching for a player and they are wrong that every offense has tackles lined up this way. That seems at least worth looking at. Of course, in the day of social media, it didn’t take long for people to point out at that least in some games it appears that Taylor is not alone in how he lines up… except in the way it’s being policed/penalized.
For frame of reference, here is the play in which Taylor was called for illegal formation on the Chiefs’ 50-yard touchdown.
I don’t need to draw lines in order for you to get the point.
But to give the league the benefit of a doubt, perhaps that’s a one-game anomaly? There’s no way this is happening in EVERY game, right? And so I thought I’d check.
I picked a few random games (one based on some friendly trash talk from a Chargers fan who called Taylor a cheater) and watched some passing down snaps. And it took me approximately 5-10 minutes total to collect multiple examples of players being technically outside the rule with not flags.
(NOTE- I didn’t bother to take multiple screenshots from any one game because it seemed less sporting. Every game I looked back on had multiple times in which the alignment was technically outside the scope of the rule)
I could (very easily) continue, but I think the point is quite clear. Again, none of this required me to really “sift” through snaps or do any extensive research. The sheer volume of plays that range from “clear violations of the rule” to “very borderline violations of the rule” made it simple.
The league has a situation in which a narrative was created, and rather than taking action against an entire practice (which is fair), action is being taken against a single player (which is not).
I’m all for rules being enforced (I am, after all, a prosecutor). However, rules must be enforced equally if they are to have any legitimate meaning. Otherwise they are nothing more than a club used to selectively beat down certain individuals while leaving others unscathed. This lack of consistency cost the Chiefs a touchdown on Sunday, and the cost could have been much higher had Mahomes been more than a little nicked up the following play.
And the genuinely sad thing, at least from my perspective, is that this is an excellent reflection of how commentators (particularly in nationally televised games) are able to drive conversation, narratives, and opinions in this sport. Far too often I’ll see perfectly good players who are treated as bad ones because of some over-the-top commentary in response to a play or two in the “wrong” game. Or in the reverse, players who don’t deserve credit for a particular play are lauded by all, because that’s what was heard by all. And the news cycle follows along with the prodding over the shouts of protest by a few.
That level of power over narrative is strange, and not just because it can legitimately affect the outcome of games. It is, after all, just a game. But for Jawaan Taylor, it’s the profession of a young man who is entering his prime and is, from all appearances, exceptional at what he does. But rather than being recognized for that, he’s being singled out in a way that nobody else is and in a way that could legitimately affect his career. Hear the absurdity of that again; The career of a good young player could be altered because of a poorly-framed narrative that has led to an inequitable policing of a rule. That’s insanity.
My guess is that the Chiefs have already expressed privately to the league their displeasure (along with Reid and Mahomes taking a stand), so it could be that this issue will fall by the wayside.
But I believe that it’s important for people (especially those in the media, myself included) to consider the power a narrative has and how easy it can be to create one if caution isn’t taken. I hope that people (again, those in the media in particular) also take into consideration just how far-reaching the unintended consequences of a narrative can be. Because even unintended consequences can affect people in a very real way.
In the meantime, it would be terrific if the NFL would just either actually crack down on offensive tackle entirely, or leave Taylor alone. The example has been made, fair or not, and continuing forward in this way would legitimately mess with a promising tackle’s career.