Was Jawaan Taylor lined up illegally? Explaining the rule and why it’s often overlooked

It’s not often that a right tackle gets their 15 minutes of fame. The left tackles usually take up all the attention we can muster for the least-glorified position group in football. But Thursday night, Chiefs right tackle Jawaan Taylor might have set a new NFL record for right tackle air time during NBC’s broadcast of the first game of the 2023 season.

It was impossible not to notice No. 74’s suspicious technique. He consistently moved backward into his pass before the rest of the Chiefs offensive line, and he was lined up shockingly deep behind the line of scrimmage. Either of these two curiosities could merit a penalty for a false start or illegal formation. But Taylor wasn’t getting called.

There are four basic rules for legal offensive formations: Seven players have to be on the line of scrimmage; the two players on the end of the seven have to be eligible receivers; no player can be out of bounds, and no player can be in the neutral zone. Taylor looked to be violating the first requirement of a legal NFL formation because he looked as close to the line of scrimmage as the Arrowhead hot dog vendor.

“He’s so deep, you wonder if he’s legal or not,” NBC’s Mike Tirico said at the end of the third quarter.


The Lions knew they could beat the Chiefs, and now a season tone has been set

NBC’s cameras zoomed in on Taylor’s face as he wiped off sweat with a towel.

“To be on the line of scrimmage, his helmet has to break the waistline of the center,” NBC officiating analyst Terry McAuley said. “And to be honest, we’ve watched him the whole game, he’s really not remotely close. It’s putting the defensive end at a tremendous disadvantage when he can be that far back.”

“And then it’s that early jump he gets, and the Chiefs knew that,” Tirico said. “They played him last year in the divisional playoff in this stadium last year.

“I give him credit for that,” NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth replied. “For his ability to time out the snap count the way that he does. But it’s also part of the responsibility of the coaching staff of the Lions to go, ‘Hey, c’mon,  you can’t give him that kind of advantage.’”

We don’t know for certain whether the Lions coaches pointed this out to the officials, but even if they did, it wouldn’t be new information to the crew. A staffer with a team that competed against Taylor when he played for the Jaguars told The Athletic that their staff warned officials pregame about Taylor’s tendencies, but he still didn’t get called enough. “He has gotten away with it his entire career,” the staffer said.

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The Chiefs’ Jawaan Taylor lines up at right tackle against Lions edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson on Thursday night. (NBC Sports)

The staffer said Taylor is in a league of his own when it comes to his movement before the snap, and lining up illegally deep. Another staffer for a different team that has played Taylor in the past said they also had to warn officials about it beforehand to put it in their heads, and he pointed out Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari is another lineman who deploys this movement before the snap technique.

Officials will often look past a little bit of movement before the snap. Each crew has its own philosophy. Former referee Gene Steratore told me last year that his own motto was to not focus on ticky-tack calls. “We fish for whales and not for minnows,” he said.

So many officials aren’t very legalistic about false starts unless a player is egregiously early, which is exactly what finally happened with two minutes to go in the fourth quarter when line judge Carl Johnson (a three-time Super Bowl official and former head of officiating) could not continue to look away from Taylor’s solo frolic through a statue garden.

Lions head coach Dan Campbell was asked about it during Friday’s media availability and while he was careful to not draw a fine talking about it, he did acknowledge that each officiating crew will have its own tendencies.

“Yeah, I can’t talk about the officials. I’ve been told that, so I’m not even gonna go there,” Campbell said. “But here’s the thing, man, the officials are gonna call or not call what they’re gonna do. I mean that’s — every crew is different and they decide what they are or aren’t gonna do and we gotta play by the rules. They were good with it and we gotta adjust.”

There’s a perception that Taylor isn’t flagged enough for his early jumping, but he’s still seen his share of penalties for it. Per TruMedia, which tallies accepted penalties for individual players, Taylor has been flagged 39 times in 67 games, which means he’s been called for an accepted penalty in a little over half the games he’s played over four seasons. Sixteen of those penalties were false starts — tied for third among offensive linemen during his four-year career — and 19 were for holding, first among offensive linemen during that period.

Taylor has mastered the art of timing his movement with the snap, and often getting away with false starts, a penalty with a bit of gray area to play around in. But when it comes to illegal formation, a much less subjective rule, he’s rarely been flagged.

Rule 3-19-3 Item 1. Non-Snapper. If he is not the snapper, no part of his body is permitted to be in the neutral zone at the snap, and his helmet must break a vertical plane that passes through the beltline of the snapper.

Reading between this convoluted legalese of the NFL’s rulebook, Taylor is supposed to line up with his helmet in line with the center’s waist. But repeatedly on the Chiefs passing downs Thursday, he looked to be fully behind the center, to the point where Collinsworth jokingly called him a slot receiver.

Per Trumedia, which tracks accepted penalties, Taylor has been flagged only once for illegal formation, in Week 1 of the 2021 season. The Jaguars were flagged five times for illegal formation penalties (accepted and declined) since 2019, and only that Week 1 2021 penalty was designated to Taylor.

Land Clark’s officiating crew called the Urban Meyer-era Jaguars three times in that game for illegal formation, two of those for the tackles lining up too deep into the backfield.

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Jawaan Taylor was called for illegal formation on this play during the 2021 Week 1 game versus the Texans. (CBS Sports)

When a player lines up like this in a game, officials will usually first warn the player that they are lined up too far back, but the penalty itself is rarely called. Another NFL club staffer who works closely with rules said that this is a penalty officials won’t consistently call play after play. They may flag the player once and then let it be.

Taylor is exploiting an advantage in officiating tendencies, something all good competitors and teams do. But the officiating office reviews each crew’s performance and grades them, and after such a public display of Taylor’s personal cheat code, it’s worth wondering if the crews will adjust.

Let’s salute this right tackle for his standout performance while we still can.

(Top photo: Reed Hoffmann / Associated Press)

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