Justin Jefferson’s first down that wasn’t got lost in the chaos that was the Minnesota Vikings’ 34-23 defeat by the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Jameson Williams scored his first touchdown against the Vikings, who could have drafted him 12th overall. Dalvin Cook fumbled the ball on first-and-goal from the three-yard line. Detroit converted a fake punt on fourth-and-eight from their 26-yard line. The entire game was madness.
Unlike the twists and turns of a game where the Vikings had a failed fourth-and-one and two-point attempt, Jefferson’s ill-fated third-down catch was hardly the most crucial point in the game. Remember, the officials called him out of bounds on a play where he kept his feet in bounds and scored a touchdown. So maybe it’s unsurprising that it’s hard to find video of Jefferson’s first-down catch that wasn’t, even though Kevin O’Connell challenged the spot and lost.
If you’re looking for it in a game replay, fast forward to 7:26 in the second quarter. It’s third-and-11 at the Minnesota nine-yard line. Kirk Cousins takes the shotgun snap, gets flushed out of the pocket, and finds Jefferson on a curl route along the right sideline. Jefferson catches the ball past the first-down marker and Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah tackles him. Jefferson hands the ball to the official and nonchalantly returns to the huddle.
The official sets the ball down a yard short of the first down, and T.J. Hockenson immediately protests the spot. Jefferson snaps his head back in surprise when he learns the ball is marked short of the sticks. On the Fox broadcast, Jonathan Vilma explains that Jefferson had forward progress away from the first-down marker, which influenced the spot. Kenny Albert cuts Vilma off during the broadcast to say that O’Connell has challenged the ruling on the field.
The Fox broadcast had already gone into Zapruder film mode on the play when Albert announces that O’Connell is challenging the spot. Jefferson catches the ball with both knees behind the first-down marker, curls up to secure the ball, and rolls onto his back behind the marker. Okudah touches Jefferson while he’s lying on his back, and both players roll out of bounds. Vilma, the former New Orleans Saints linebacker who’s vilified among Vikings fans because of his role in the Bountygate scandal, says, “O’Connell may be right” on the call.
Fox cuts to commercial after a brief shot of O’Connell receiving an explanation from the officials and Jefferson shaking his head. Immediately after the commercial break, Albert says, “The Vikings will punt it away.”
“The reason it stands is because, even though Justin Jefferson has two knees down, he went back to the football, and he’s not out of bounds,” Vilma says, further explaining the ruling. “So it’s when he gets touched.” As Vilma finishes that sentence, Fox briefly pauses on Okudah touching Jefferson while Jefferson’s body is short of the first-down marker. “That’s where the ball will be marked,” Vilma continued. “He can’t declare himself down after making that catch. Jeff Okudah touches him. It’s a nice call by the linesman for the fourth down.”
“I feel that’s something that we need to change in the NFL, especially during that situation,” said Jefferson in no uncertain terms. “Obviously, I catch it in front of the first down, but I don’t get touched, but I’m really going back to the ball.”
There are several oddities with the call, but chief among them is that Jefferson was called short of the sticks on a ball he caught in front of them. He caught an 11-yard pass, but the officials ruled it as a 10-yard completion because forward progress brought him back a yard. It’s different from the touchdown rule, where a player scores so long as he has control of the ball and it crosses the end zone plane. Jefferson would have had to have halted all forward momentum of his body to get a first down on that play.
“That’s what I tried to tell the referees,” he said in jest, “but they didn’t want to listen to me.”
“That was an interesting one because he caught it and his knee went down,” says offensive coordinator Wes Phillips. “If someone’s hand would have just been touching him right there, that’s a first down. But because he fell forward on his own, it was not a first down. Many different situations come up every week, and that was a first for me.”
Vilma initially thought it was a first down, which should indicate how it should be called. Not only has Vilma become a seasoned broadcaster, but he’s a defensive player who was on a rival team. He’s not partial to offense, in general, or the Vikings, in particular. If all a player needs to do is break the plane of the end zone with the ball to score, why doesn’t the same rule apply to first-down calls? Why is an offensive player punished for not being tackled soon enough? Why would a league focused on promoting offense make it strangely difficult to get a first down on a curl route?
Nobody knows what would have happened if the Vikings had gotten the first down on Jefferson’s sideline catch. But Kalif Raymond returned Ryan Wright’s punt for 35 yards after Wright outkicked his coverage. Goff hit Williams for a 48-yard bomb on the next play to put the Lions up 14-7. Minnesota had a 12-play, 67-yard drive that ended when Cook fumbled on first-and-goal from the three-yard line. After halftime, Detroit then used a 12-play, 76-yard drive, punctuated by a fake punt gamble deep within their own territory to go up 21-7, effectively putting the game out of reach for Minnesota.
Jefferson is adamant that the league should change the rule. Phillips is a third-generation football coach who’s never seen anything like that before. Minnesota’s failure to get a first down on third-and-11 deep in the second quarter hardly cost them the game. But it led to a vicious spiral that they couldn’t escape. Watch enough football, and you’ll see something new. But it’s not usually a rule that stifles offense counterintuitively.