Matthew Slater was characteristically diplomatic as he discussed his costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. But it was clear he disagreed with the call.
Slater, the New England Patriots’ longtime special teams captain, was penalized for being forced out of bounds and not returning to the field of play quickly enough while he covered a punt during Sunday night’s matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The penalty wiped out a fumble that Slater forced and New England recovered — a pivotal play in the game. The Patriots would have taken over on the Buccaneers’ 34-yard line with a one-point lead midway through the third quarter. Instead, Tampa Bay gained possession just shy of midfield and marched 52 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
Slater, who is one of the best and most experienced punt gunners in NFL history, discussed his turning-point penalty during a Monday afternoon video conference.
“Look, the call that was made on the field was the call that was made on the field,” he said. “It’s a tough play. Obviously, I’m well aware of the rules. I don’t think there’s anybody in this league that’s covered more punts than I have, so I understand what the rules are. I made a play that I thought was within the rules based on how it was being played and based off some of the things that we’ve talked about.
“But ultimately, that’s a judgment call, and you have to live with the call that the officials make on the field. I’m not going to question that. They’re trying their best to get things right. So it’s just one of those things where you wish you could have it back and you wish there wasn’t a flag, but it just wasn’t the case.”
Officials determined Slater was in violation of Rule 9, Section 1, Article 5 of the NFL rulebook, which states:
“If a member of the kicking team is forced out of bounds, or goes out of bounds voluntarily, and does not attempt to return inbounds in a reasonable amount of time, it is a foul for Unsportsmanlike Conduct.”
Slater believed he did return to the field in a “reasonable amount of time.” He passionately pleaded his case in the moment and reignited his argument after a subsequent Bucs extra point.
But that lobbying was unsuccessful. Slater, who was double-teamed by the Bucs’ return unit, traveled close to 35 yards while he was outside the field of play, taking more than seven seconds to step back in bounds.
“It’s interesting,” Slater said. “That rule, it’s left open for some interpretation. I think everyone assumes that when you go out of bounds, you immediately have to reenter the field of play. That’s never been the way the rule has been officiated. I don’t want to say there’s a grace period, but there is a yardage marker that we have in our minds that we’re coached to play with. We set an angle to return to the field of play. Sometimes, you come back in the field of play and there’s a guy there, and maybe he pushes you back out and it changes your angle. Or sometimes, you stay out too long, or sometimes you take the wrong angle. Many of those things can come into play, so I have to try to execute the play better.”
The loss dropped the Patriots to 1-3 on the season. They’ve lost each of their first three home games, falling by one point in Week 1 and two points in Week 4.
“We’ll learn from it,” “Slater said. “It’s disappointing, because I felt like that was a big play in the game. But again, I think the official made the call that he felt was right. If you surveyed 100 special teams coaches, 50 of them might say yea, 50 of them might say nay. A hundred of them might say nay — I don’t know. That’s really — that’s neither here nor there.
“We’ve really got to start focusing on playing better football and start playing some winning football. And we made some strides (Sunday) night but ultimately want to start getting in the win category.”
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