The explanation the Seahawks got from league officials on a crucial call that helped doom them in a must-win game may be even more dubious than the call itself.
Officials penalized cornerback Bless Austin for holding Rams wide receiver extraordinaire Cooper Kupp on a third-and-12 play for Los Angeles, with the score 10-10 in the fourth quarter Tuesday.
Austin put both hands into Kupp’s chest at the snap, which is legal contact within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage per NFL rules. Kupp then raised and did a “swim” move with his arms over Austin’s jamming hands in an attempt to get past the defender. Austin’s hands stayed on Kupp as the receiver stumbled at about 4 yards past the line of scrimmage. Kupp put both hands on the turf to regain is balance. Kupp stayed upright, then got past the cornerback to continue his pass pattern.
The play continued with Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford throwing short to a check-down receiver in front of Kupp and Austin. The play gained only 8 of the needed 12 yards. The Seahawks thought they had a third-down stop deep in L.A. territory and were about to get the ball back in favorable field position with 14 minutes left in a tie game.
They did not.
Field judge Tom Hill watched Austin’s contact of Kupp at the snap from about 10 yards behind and to the sideline of the action. Hill threw a penalty flag. He reported to referee Shawn Hochuli a foul on Austin for defensive holding. That 5-yard penalty and automatic first down extended Los Angeles drive.
The Rams turned that into the go-ahead touchdown, Stafford’s 29-yard pass to Kupp with 11 minutes remaining. The Seahawks never got closer to winning. They lost the game they had to win to keep their dwindling playoff hopes alive.
Thursday, Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was asked what his coaching point was to Austin about the play.
“His job was to jam him off the line of scrimmage,” Norton said.
“I think the call that we got back was he took him to the ground. He didn’t take him to the ground. We know he stumbled.”
Norton did not specify whether the “call” the Seahawks got back about the play was from the officials on the field at the time of the play or from NFL headquarters in New York since the game.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said this week he and his team send about “six to 10” plays to the NFL after every game, asking for the league’s interpretations and explanations on decisions. You can bet your whistle the Seahawks sent in the Austin-versus-Kupp play to New York for an explanation.
“We felt like it was something that we coached him to do,” Norton said of Austin. “So we kind of gave him a pass on that one.
“We thought he was aggressive, just like he is. We felt like that call shouldn’t have been made, obviously. But, it happens. The refs have a tough job.
“And it was a big, pivotal play for us, in a third-and-long situation.”
It was one of multiple decisions by the game officials that went against Seattle Tuesday.
After the Rams took their 17-10 lead on that drive gifted by the penalty on Austin, Rams linebacker Ernest Jones ran into and arm-chopped the arms of DeeJay Dallas before Russell Wilson’s pass to the Seahawks’ running back arrived on a fourth and 6. Seattle was driving down 17-10 with 3 minutes left.
Instead of obvious pass interference and a first down for Seattle in L.A. territory, the Seahawks turned the ball over on downs. Los Angeles then kicked the game-clinching field goal, and the Seahawks clinched their first losing season since 2011.
“Unfortunate,” Wilson said of that officials’ decision on his pass to Dallas.
Austin was playing Tuesday’s rescheduled-from-Sunday game because starting cornerback D.J. Reed went on the reserve/COVID-19 list Sunday. Reed remains out indefinitely, still on the COVID list.
So Austin, the former New York Jets starter the Seahawks signed just before this season began, may be starting again Sunday when Seattle (5-9) hosts the Chicago Bears (4-10) at Lumen Field.
Norton said the defense and the cornerback have gotten better from the disputed penalty call Tuesday, though the coach didn’t specify how.
Norton said if Austin and the Seahawks have to do that play again, “we’d do it without getting the flag.”