Zac Taylor made his way through the Bengals locker room, hugging each player he saw, and when he got to Joseph Ossai, he stopped. Words were both necessary and insufficient. Both men knew it. What was done was done, and what the defensive end had done was hit Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes out of bounds with the AFC championship game tied and otherwise likely headed to overtime.
The Chiefs gladly accepted the 15 yards. Harrison Butker kicked a 45-yard game-winning field goal with three seconds remaining to set up a Kansas City–Philadelphia Super Bowl. In the locker room afterward, many Cincinnati players sat in full uniform, stunned. Some just stared at their phones. Jessie Bates III had a towel over his head. Ossai walked in and had clearly been crying.
The hit was not cheap or dirty or particularly dangerous, but there was no doubt it was a penalty. I didn’t hear one Bengal argue the point. Mahomes was clearly out of bounds. Ossai clearly hit him intentionally. Two factors that help define the modern NFL converged on one play: games that always seem to come down to one possession, and rules designed to make the sport’s violence is more controlled than it is. It says so much about how we watch football that most people reacted to the penalty and didn’t think much about the fact that Ossai hurt his right knee on the play. He’ll have an MRI Monday, if you care, and it would be nice if you did.
Ossai tried to talk to the media when he got to his locker, but he clearly wasn’t ready. He showered and came back in a fog. He put on his shirt without drying his back. Teammate B.J. Hill repeatedly announced that there would be “no dumb questions”—he must have said it a half-dozen times—and indicated he would cut the whole group interview off if he didn’t like what we asked. But Ossai was determined to talk. It was the way to end an honest day’s work.
“I’ve got to learn from experience,” Ossai said. “I’ve got to know not to get close to that quarterback when he is close to that sideline, if it’s anything that could possibly cause a penalty. In a dire situation like that, I gotta do better.”
In the moment, if you were a Bengals fan, Ossai’s penalty seemed like one of the worst plays in the history of football. But of course it wasn’t. Hell, it wasn’t even the worst play in this game. In the third quarter, Mahomes—the league’s sure MVP, and one of the best players in history—rolled right, tried to throw and lost control of the football. There was nobody near him. It was the rare completely unforced fumble. People make mistakes, even Mahomes.
Players make mistakes on every play. In this game alone, Kadarius Toney dropped a touchdown pass, Trent McDuffie dropped an interception and Joe Burrow threw two picks. Ossai’s penalty looks egregious because of the timing, but there are late hits in the NFL all the time.
“I was just in full-chase mode,” Ossai said. “I was trying to push him, to maybe get him going backwards. I knew he was going for that sideline. I was trying to make him go backwards, get that clock running.”
Ossai is a rookie. I’m sure there were bars and living rooms and corners of the internet filled with ugly comments about him Sunday evening. But in the locker room, all I saw was humanity.
“My guy Joseph, he goes hard,” safety Michael Thomas said. “That’s why he’s here. That’s who he is. He’s going to bounce out and he’s going to be great. We’re going to make sure he’s fine. Nobody in this locker room is blaming him. I hope no fans and anybody else puts blame on him.”
Ossai said, “To know that they have my back, it’s extremely … it’s giving me peace right now, for sure.” Hill did blow the whistle on a couple of reporters—“that’s a dumb question,” he said—but he was clearly acting more as a friend than a bully. He never tried to end the session. He didn’t raise his voice. He talked to us himself before and after Ossai did.
“He practices how he plays,” Hill said. “I got no feelings about that play at all, because I know his intention is to play hard.”
One of the tricks of the NFL is playing exactly hard enough and no harder. Go full-speed at the quarterback, but don’t hit him even a millisecond after he throws a pass. Chase guys from sideline to sideline, but not an inch past.
Cornerback Eli Apple said: “In that situation, you gotta understand you can’t really try to push him out, you’ve got to let him go out on his own. It is tough, though. You’re moving full-speed. You’ve got to all of a sudden stop. He’s a high-motor guy. He gives great effort every play. It’s tough.”
Thomas said: “When you’re chasing somebody, you don’t know when somebody crosses a line and [is] out of bounds. You’re not looking at that. You might be trying to swipe at the ball. You might be trying to tackle him up high. You might be trying to tackle him down low. You’re not looking at the ground. We’re not putting any one play on one guy.”
Ossai said Taylor “told me to keep my head up. He told me there were a bunch of different plays we had to make. It didn’t come down to that one.”
This is both true and what a coach should say, but it only means something if the player thinks the coach means it. The last few weeks have said more about Taylor than last year’s run to the Super Bowl. He was the one who went to Buffalo’s Sean McDermott and suggested ending the game after Bills safety Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest. He stood up for his players when he didn’t like the NFL’s contingency plans. He had them believing they would beat the Bills in Buffalo in the divisional round, and they did. They came to Kansas City full of genuine confidence. When they fell behind 13–3 they were unfazed. And when they lost in excruciating fashion they were stunned because of how deeply they believed, and they supported Ossai because of how much they like each other. Several players said they had never been on a team so close.
“I gotta be better,” Ossai said, “but they’ve been very supportive.”
Talking seemed to lift his spirits a bit. His voice grew stronger with each answer. But after he was done and he packed up his belongings, he dabbed his eyes with a towel. It’s easy to say this stuff happens until it happens to you.