Kyler Murray played four series in the Cardinals’ loss to the Raiders on Thursday, going 3-for-8 for 12 yards. Not great. But also who cares, it’s preseason. Potentially much more relevant were the two false start penalties he was called for in the first quarter.
With just eight called all of last season, false start penalties on quarterbacks are exceedingly rare in the NFL. But so is Murray’s cadence. Murray claps for the snap (or, as in these cases, claps as part of the count), which has become more common in college in recent years but hadn’t yet made it into the pros until now, with Murray’s and coach Kliff Kingsbury’s extremely college offense. Last night, officials were struggling to distinguish Murray’s clap from a deliberate attempt to draw the defense offsides.
Officials told him he was “too abrupt” in his clap and “not smooth enough as far as bringing my hands together,” Murray said.
So the clap itself is legal, but somewhere there’s a line between clapping as a natural part of the snap count and clapping “abruptly.” Here’s video of Kingsbury explaining the clap to the referee before the game, and, seemingly, the referee explaining to Kingsbury how the smoothness of the clap motion matters.
The NFL Rulebook reads, for a quarterback in the shotgun, “[a]ny quick and abrupt movement is a False Start.” That’s a judgment call, obviously, and Murray isn’t thrilled with the officials’ judgment in this case. “To me, it’s like any other hard count,” he said. “It’s the defense’s job to watch the ball, so it really doesn’t make sense to me.”
He’s right in that the very point of a hard count is to draw the defense off—or to lull it—but hand motions are undeniably different than a verbal count. Pass rushers are taught to watch for movement and all but ignore a barked snap count. And there’s reason to think that if Murray’s claps were especially abrupt this week, he’s doing so intentionally to prevent defenses from jumping on it, like the Chargers did last week:
Kingsbury says there’s going to be an adjustment period.
“I think it’s the first time for certain officials to see it, and we’ve been in contact with the league and had a great conversation on it. We’re going to work through that and make sure everybody’s on the same page. We want to be on the same page as them and make sure we’re doing things that they deem legal.”
I think that’s broadly right—NFL officials, especially those who haven’t recently worked in college, are still figuring out what to make of the snap clap. But there are 17 different officiating crews in the NFL, which means that almost every week, the crew working the Cardinals game is going to be seeing it for the first time. That can be addressed somewhat by them watching video, and by Murray learning where zebras view the line between a clean clap and an illegal one. Eventually, both sides will figure it out—and definitely in future years, as more quarterbacks and coaches bring the clap with them to the pros—but the process of getting there isn’t going to be painless.