The Joseph Ossais are partially why we watch the NFL

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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes heads out of bounds in front of Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive end Joseph Ossai during the last second of the game on Jan. 29, 2023, at Arrowhead Stadium.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes heads out of bounds in front of Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive end Joseph Ossai during the last second of the game on Jan. 29, 2023, at Arrowhead Stadium.
Image: Getty Images

Patrick Mahomes is a thief. On Sunday night, he slipped up in the pocket, darted for the first down, stepped out of bounds, and stole a win from the Cincinnati Bengals. He also put defensive end Joseph Ossai in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

As the protagonist of the NFL, Mahomes’ deux ex machina arrived in the form of a roughing the passer call against Ossai. Mahomes’ incredible acting skills kicked in. The second he felt that contact on his back, he collapsed, sold it as well as a pedestrian clipped by a luxury car, doing everything short of complaining about his neck and back until the ambulance chasers arrived. Not to go full-Collinsworth on the Mahomes adulation, but he deserves props for having a sense of the moment.

What was Joseph Ossai thinking?

As Mahomes activated his turbo jets for the first time all day and stepped out of bounds to stop the clock though, Ossai’s brain clicked off and his lizard brain tried to play the hero. The second-year defensive end toed the line between hero and goat, but stepped over to the wrong side in an instant. Stopping Mahomes inbounds would have ended the game, but Ossai was too late. A few weeks earlier, Ossai stomped out the Chiefs’ game-ending drive by grazing Mahomes’ ankle on 3rd and short in their Week 13 win.

In the waning moments of the AFC Championship, Ossai’s heroics were unnecessary. Mahomes was cornered on the sideline 43 yards away. With eight seconds left, Harrison Butker was staring at a difficult 60-yard field goal attempt. Given the way the NFL has coddled quarterbacks to the extreme all season, caution was the best course of action. Breathing on a quarterback without a breath mint is 15 yards. For pass rushers in the modern NFL who make contact with quarterbacks, it’s drilled into their heads to make damn sure they’ve dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s or else flags will come raining down. Sometimes, the flags come even if they’ve gone through the proper protocol of being gentle with the league’s golden calves.

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The yardage that officials tacked onto the end shrunk the distance on Butker’s game-winning attempt from the outer rim of his range to a comfortable 45-yard toe-tap. But amid all the jubilation from the Chiefs, CBS’ cameras were trained on Ossai, who was inconsolable on the sidelines. To add insult to actual injury, Ossai’s knee also buckled on the play, and has an MRI scheduled to determine the extent of the damage.

However, the image of Ossai on the sideline is haunting and more memorable than (another) Chiefs’ coronation. The usual vitriol reserved for athletes who commit brain farts was probably mitigated by the visual of Ossai. Ossai appeared genuinely troubled on the sideline and, in the locker room afterward, teammates formed a cocoon around him. There was a brief clip of linebacker Germaine Pratt angrily questioning Ossai as they entered the locker room, but that appears to have been a heat-of-the-moment tantrum that was quickly squashed.

Ossai’s teammates had his back

Instead, defensive tackle B.J. Hill captured the mood in the locker room by standing beside Ossai, bluntly informing a media gaggle around his locker room, “Any dumb questions and I am shutting this down.”

Given the way reporters have demonstrated a lack of tact before and Ossai’s emotional state, his irritation was understandable. Ossai’s brainfart ultimately sank the Bengals, but that’s why we watch the drama. If we wanted characters in the real-life drama of live sports who perfectly hit their cues and execute like robots, league commissioners would just hire Aaron Sorkin or ChatGPT to script their leagues in front of a live stadium audience. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Game of Thrones is a more popular HBO series than The Newsroom because they accurately depict flawed human decision-making and the brutal consequences humans incur when we miscalculate. Ossai took a sharper heel turn than Benioff and Weiss’ final season, but the Bengals wouldn’t even have been there if it weren’t for Tyler Huntley inexplicably underestimating his vertical and getting stuffed mid-air as he attempted to go over the defense inside the 2-yard line.

A few drives earlier, the electric Patrick Mahomes malfunctioned when he lost the ball in the middle of his throwing motion, fumbled, and gifted the Bengals with field position at midfield. Mahomes’ flub enabled Burrow and Co. to drive down a short field, score and knot the game up at 20.

Mahomes goes off-script plenty, but his ratio of impeccable plays to blunders is what makes him the face of the league. There’s more enjoyment derived from watching him than from the prosaic Belichick Patriots.

While the Chiefs prepare for a Super Bowl, Ossai’s focus will be on his mental and physical well-being. He can either allow this moment to make or break him. Ossai’s mistake will sting, but what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. If it’s any consolation, to err is human — and much more exciting, if we’re being honest.

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