In case you missed it, the Cowboys beat the Lions 20-19 in controversial fashion. That’s putting it lightly, too. The Lions scored a touchdown with 23 seconds left in the game and opted to go for two, trying to win in regulation rather than play for overtime.
They ran a trick play on the initial try, successfully throwing to left tackle Taylor Decker in the endzone, but the play was erased after Decker was flagged for illegal touching. The Lions’ second two-point attempt was unsuccessful, but a Cowboys penalty gave them a third shot, which also failed.
However, the Lions insist that they properly informed the officials that Decker was to be reported as eligible, which would have made the play legal. That’s where the controversy comes from, so let’s break down what should have happened and what actually happened.
What Should’ve Happened
By rule, offenses are only allowed to have five eligible players on any given play, which means only those players are allowed to run routes, be the first player to touch the ball, or move more than a yard downfield on passing plays. That final part is what leads to the ineligible man downfield penalty that has risen in frequency as RPO’s become more common in the league.
When an offense substitutes a player that is not normally an eligible player - this is almost always a sixth offensive lineman coming on the field - they are required to go to the head referee and declare themselves as eligible. No other player can report for them, as the Cowboys learned earlier this season.
Once the player has gone to the head referee and reported as eligible, the head referee goes up to the defense and informs them of the eligibility report. Then, the head referee uses their microphone to announce to the entire stadium who has reported as eligible. It is at this point that the process is complete and the offense can proceed, with the eligible player allowed to touch the ball.
What Actually Happened
The Lions are a team that run a ton of trick plays, and they often prepare officials ahead of time for what they’re going to do. Head coach Dan Campbell confirmed after the game that he had specifically detailed before the game began that the Lions had a trick play in their pocket like the one they used in this moment. That can help the officials in their handling of it, but the player in question is still required to go through the usual reporting process. Informing officials of a play beforehand is no substitute for that.
When the Lions prepared to go for two, sixth offensive lineman Dan Skipper came onto the field. As he substituted, Lions tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell were both talking to head referee Brad Allen. Soon after, Allen announced over the microphone that Skipper, not Decker, had reported as eligible. Both head coaches, Campbell and Mike McCarthy, said after the game that they were told by the officials that Skipper was the eligible player.
This also influenced the way the Cowboys defended the play:
Cowboys CB Jourdan Lewis confirmed that the defense was accounting for Dan Skipper (70) on the two-point play. He said they had worked all week on players reporting eligible/ineligible.— Nick Harris (@NickHarrisDC) December 31, 2023
If Taylor Decker (68) had been reported, they would have accounted for him.#DallasCowboys
The Lions clearly intended for Decker to be the eligible player, though, since the play was designed around throwing to Decker. So how did this mistake - Allen announcing Skipper as eligible - happen? This excellent breakdown from Football Zebras, the preeminent non-NFL authority on all things officiating, explains:
The video of the between-downs action shows that there was a muddled conference that led referee Brad Allen to declare the incoming lineman Dan Skipper (#70) as the eligible player. Lineman Penei Sewell (#58) and Decker approached Allen prior to the conversion attempt and apparently got across that there was an ineligible player reporting eligible. While they intended to communicate #68, Allen understood this was #70, and points to #70 as acknowledgement.
Looking at the exchange, it appears that Skipper is waving his hands in front of his number, which is a signal for an ineligible reporting. Skipper also reported eligible at other times during the game. There is likely a combination of interpreting Skipper’s hand gestures and assuming that he was the eligible reporting that had Allen peg Skipper as the eligible player.
Allen should not assume in this case, so if that’s the case there is fault that he bears. However, it is always 100% on the lineman to clearly report eligibility to the referee. There have been times where players make the signal and think the referee has them eligible only for the referee to say they didn’t recognize them or announce that fact to the defense. The video shows Skipper got that acknowledgement and not Decker.
That explains how the miscommunication occurred, and it does seem that Allen made a mistake in identifying which player the Lions intended to report as eligible. But all of this could’ve been avoided, too. Once Allen announces Skipper as the eligible player, something that both coaches acknowledge hearing, the Lions players should have gone up to Allen and cleared up the confusion. That didn’t happen, and therefore Decker remained ineligible.
Of course, that’s not all. As John Parry, the rules expert on ESPN’s broadcast team, explained in the moment, the play would’ve been penalized even if Decker had been formally announced as an eligible player. That’s because Decker was covered up on the line of scrimmage by receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, which would’ve resulted in an illegal formation penalty had Decker been considered eligible on this play (which, again, he was not). Allen confirmed as much afterwards:
Full explanation of illegal touching penalty against the Lions vs. #Cowboys — per the official.— Patrik [No C] Walker (@VoiceOfTheStar) December 31, 2023
I'll add that the official announced, over the loudspeaker clearly, that "No. 70 has declared as eligible".
Lions ran the play anyway and threw it to No. 68.
The rest is history. pic.twitter.com/5Sb3lliRIQ
In other words, this play was doomed from the start for the Lions. Allen made a mistake when announcing the eligible player, the Lions bear responsibility for not clarifying things after the announcement, and their formation would have been illegal even if Decker had been declared as eligible.
It’s understandably frustrating for Lions fans, though this was not the only costly error that Allen’s crew made in the game. At the end of the day, the onus was on the Lions to ensure everything was properly communicated to the officials and they failed in that regard, just as they did on their next two attempts at the two-point conversion.