I can’t stop watching it.
Playing in the background on some distant open tab on my laptop forever will be the ending of Sunday’s Patriots-Raiders game, in which a Bill Belichick–coached team lost on the most confounding piece of situational football we have seen in modern NFL history. It is a play so wonderful and unusual to the human eye that we will study it like a potential raw video of the Loch Ness Monster. It will take us years to fully understand it. Centuries. It will take a Rosetta Stone from a different planet with translations for words we do not yet know. It will take the collective breadth of knowledge from neuroscientists, philosophers, various holy men and other mystical beings who can understand human consciousness in a way the lay football fan cannot.
First, the facts: There were two seconds remaining in a 24–24 game between Belichick and his long-time assistant, Josh McDaniels, now coaching the Raiders, in Las Vegas. The Patriots had the ball on their own 40-yard line and handed it to Rhamondre Stevenson. As he broke a tackle toward midfield, the clock ran out, meaning the game would soon head to overtime. Stevenson shifted to his right toward the sideline and had blockers. He got to the 35-yard line and on our TV screens we saw the emergence of Jakobi Meyers, the Patriots’ wide receiver and a former high school quarterback. For some reason, Stevenson pitched the ball to Meyers like a point guard dumping a pass in the lane to a nearby power forward.
Meyers caught the ball in traffic, reversed field back toward the 40-yard line and began to open up his stance like a bully palming an ice-filled snowball. He did not want to play a fifth quarter. He wanted to win right there. He hurled the ball diagonally and backward toward midfield as he was violently shoved to the ground by Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby.
At this point, so many stunning things had already happened. There was a body on the ground. There was a ball in the air that had no business being there. There was a lone potential receiver of said football, a 217-pound quarterback with the mobility of an adolescent giraffe—Michael McCorkle “Mac” Jones, standing by himself near the original location of the handoff. The entire mosaic was an absurdist creation, a scene of dogs in suits and humans on leashes, and we haven’t even gotten to what happened next. We were left to wonder if this was a deeply buried piece of trickery in the tome of Belichick, whose mastery of situational football over four decades has rightfully earned him the title of greatest coach of all time. We were held in suspense, potentially to be shown something we have never quite seen before. Was this a belly laugh in the making or the construction of a football wonder we would tell our children about?
The ball never arrived in Jones’s arms. Because Meyers was hit as he released the ball, the pass wobbled toward a Raiders defender, Chandler Jones. Chandler Jones is a former Patriot who stands two inches taller and a quarter-keg heavier than Mac Jones (no relation). Chandler placed a hand on Mac and Mac collapsed inward like a folded sleeping bag after a long weekend in the forest. Chandler ran toward the end zone with his arms raised to shoulder level at both sides with the gait of a man who had just seen the ocean for the very first time, in his mid-30s. He crossed the plane and the game ended. Just like that.
I can’t stop wondering why.
And that is the hardest part of mysteries. They never leave us with the answer the brain desires. Stevenson said he should have just run the ball out of bounds. Belichick, grumbling as if he were explaining a flagged credit card charge to suspicious parents, only called it a mistake. Mac Jones blamed himself for not tackling the behemoth defensive end. McDaniels simply hoped that Chandler Jones wouldn’t be tackled by a quarterback. Meyers said what we were all thinking: He was trying to be a literal “hero.” He was trying to do too much.
The Patriots protected their own, knowing this will go down in football infamy. It is the one piece of humility I should not overlook when it comes to the play I cannot stop watching. All of us have wanted to be Meyers. All of us have wanted to jump and twirl and create magic. All of us have chucked paint at a canvas praying for a masterpiece.
I can’t stop hoping that there is another universe where somehow the ball landed in the quarterback’s hands and he was able to fire a pass downfield toward the end zone, toward someone—anyone—not wearing silver and black and I’d have on my hands a play I cannot stop watching for all the best reasons and not one soaked in finger pointing and schadenfreude. Meyers would be somewhere filming commercials for cell phones with payment plans referencing the “throwback.”
I can’t imagine what it will be like to take the field again as a member of the Patriots’ offense knowing that this happened; that there are truly no limits to the unfathomable number of outcomes available to someone when they try something incredible.