Breaking down Seattle Seahawks punter Michael Dickson’s play of a lifetime

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve covered the NFL since 1984. I’ve never seen a punt—nor a special-teams play—as incredible as the Michael Dickson double-punt in the Rams-Seahawks game Thursday night.

Four things made it that way:

• Dickson, the Australia native, got the punt blocked late in the third quarter, picked it up, and punted it again, hurriedly, in an oblong grip. It went for 69 yards.

• It was the way Dickson picked up the spinning blocked punt. He picked it up one-handed, in full trot, to avoid getting buried. “My Aussie background kicked in,” Dickson told me Saturday. “We pick up the ball sometimes on the run [in Australian rules football].”

• The punt blocker, rookie special-teams demon Jamir Jones, was playing his first game for the Rams after 30 teams passed him on waivers from Pittsburgh a week earlier. The Rams, number 31 in waiver priority, got Jones. The drama never would have happened without that waiver claim, and without Jones’ play.

• The play drew a flag from line judge Mark Steinkerchner, who ruled Dickson punted from beyond the line of scrimmage. The replay official upstairs and the New York officiating command center both reviewed the play and the decision was made by the Ronald Torbert crew to pick up the flag because it did not appear to them that Dickson was clearly over the line.

The play was so nuts that one of the foremost experts in officiating, ever, ex-NFL VP of Officiating and current FOX analyst Mike Pereira, got the rules interpretation wrong in real time. “You can advance [a blocked punt],” Pereira said Thursday night on national TV, “but no, you can’t kick it again.”

I’ve been asking Pereira about rules for 23 years, since he began honchoing NFL officiating. He’s great. He’s the Oracle. Which is why, on Saturday, he was still crushed by his error.

“It torments me,” Pereira said. “It kills me. And now I’ll never see that play again.”

I doubt any of us will.

Whew. Where to start? How about at the 3:00 mark of the third quarter, Rams up 16-7, Seahawks with fourth-and-14 at exactly the Seattle 21-yard line. Dickson trotted out to punt and stationed himself at the Seattle 7-yard line.

3:00. Long-snapper Tyler Ott shot a perfect snap back to Dickson.

2:59. Punt-rusher Jones burst though the guard-center gap of the Seattle line. There’s a reason Seattle was surprised to see Jones in this position, and it’s because this was his first game as a Ram. The undrafted free-agent rookie for Pittsburgh got cut in late September. Rams scout Brian Xanders loved him in preseason tape, so director of pro personnel John McKay (son of Falcons president Rich) recommended they claim Jones. The NFL’s waiver priority system—based on the current year’s standings—went into effect after Week 3. The Rams were one of five 3-0 teams after three weeks, putting them at the bottom of the waiver priority system. The Rams were actually 31st that week in waiver priority, based on strength of schedule, meaning that 30 teams passed on Jones. Now he was sprinting unblocked toward Dickson. “I felt him,” Dickson said. “I knew he was gonna block it as soon as I started swinging my leg.”

2:58. THUMP-THUMP! The punt and the block happened in a millisecond. Jones smothered it at the Seattle 11-yard line. Dickson: “I knew I had to try to find the ball.”

2:56. Dickson ran to his left, toward the spinning punt. “I felt the guy who blocked it a few steps behind me,” Dickson said. Amazing: It was blocked at the 11, skittered sideways, and Dickson sprinted and leaned down as he got close. The ball was exactly at the 11. Would Dickson try to bat it 10 yards to the boundary, out of bounds, to avoid getting bashed? Would he try to pick it up with Jones steaming from the rear?

2:55. The ball was spinning like a top. Dickson’s right hand scooped it. He grew up in Sydney playing Australian rules football, with 18 players a side, and six points awarded for every side-swiped kick through goal posts. Dickson got used to competition chasing free balls. “I knew I had to take a risk on the pickup,” Dickson said. “I didn’t have time. In the Australian game, the ball doesn’t spin that way. It’s generally just on the ground, so scooping it is not a real problem. In the off-season when I practice, I play around with a football like an Aussie rules ball. They’re not exactly the same, but similar. And so I have been scooping balls off the ground—just not when they’re spinning like that. But like I said, I didn’t have the time, so I had to take a risk.”

2:53. Dickson wanted to run for the first down, but there was no way he could have run to the first-down marker at the 35-yard line. Four Rams were in a line at around the 23, waiting to bury him. So at about the 17, he prepared to kick it, Aussie style, sideway. “I didn’t know the rule exactly,” he said Saturday. “I’ve asked [special-teams coaches] before, and I’ve never gotten a [definitive] answer, but I figure even it gets penalized, we’ll get to punt it again, even though it’ll be from worse field position. That’s better than giving it to the Rams deep in our territory.”

2:52. Rather than punt the normal way, straight on, Dickson, straddling the 21-yard line, held the football oblong in his hands and took a sideways swipe at it with his right leg. Watch it a few times. The ease of the leg swing was striking, sort of like how Ernie Els used to swing so calmly and hit the golf ball a mile. Dickson: “In the offseason, I kick footballs a lot more like Australian-style, warming up, just having fun.” As Dickson took this easy swing and punted it oddly, Steinkerchner, right on the 21, threw his yellow flag. Clearly, the line judge thought Dickson was over the line. Meanwhile, the science of kicking a low line drive that way means if it hits the ground and isn’t caught or touched down, it could roll for a while.

2:48. The line drive hit at the Rams’ 30 and bounced. “That’s coming back,” said Troy Aikman on FOX.

2:47. Another bounce. “That’s coming back,” said Joe Buck.

2:45. Bounced again, and safety Ugo Amadi surrounded the ball.

2:42. Roll, roll. Amadi downed it at the 11-yard line. Blocked at the Seattle 11, recovered at the Rams’ 11. That’s a change of 78 yards of field position. Just a stunning turn of events.

“That’s one of the great kicking plays in the history of the league,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll, who should know, said later. He’s 70, and a football maven.

Eighteen seconds of a thrill ride, and it wasn’t over. Now the officials would rule.

A league source told me that both of the key administrative people involved in the adjudication of the play—NFL senior VP Walt Anderson, in the New York command center, and replay official Saleem Choudhry—thought Dickson’s back heel was very close to or on the line of scrimmage. Just like with a quarterback, the entire body and the football must be beyond the line for an official to flag the person with the ball for being over the line. This season, the league has added administrative duties and freedom to communicate with the referee between plays to the job of replay official. So Choudhry and Anderson could both speak to ref Ronald Torbert. And one or both apparently told Torbert the right call here would be to pick up the flag. NBC officiating consultant Terry McAulay, the former NFL referee, told me: “There was not a single angle that showed definitively that the entire body is over the line.” I watched it 10 times and it appeared he was over the line, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Too close.

Rams coach Sean McVay, during the delay for the officials to discuss the call, had the play explained to him by the officials. “They reviewed it in New York,” McVay said after the game. “They said his foot was on the line, he wasn’t totally over the line of scrimmage, so they said he could [punt the ball legally]. I said [to the officials], ‘You can kick the ball twice, huh?’ I guess you learn something every night.”

The confusion for Pereira came in the wording of the play, which says in the rule book that if a ball is punted once, crosses the line of scrimmage and crosses back behind the line, it cannot be punted again. But it is legal to punt it twice as long as the ball does not cross the line of scrimmage after the first punt. “It ranks as the weirdest play I’ve ever seen, because I’ve been consumed by it since it happened,” Pereira said. “I’ve never seen a play and a rule and a situation like that one.”

The amazing thing, to me, is that Dickson just handled this bizarre play with such cool. “Crazy,” he said. “But really, it was just like a normal Aussie rules play, something I’ve done since I was 9. What’s important at a time like that is to rely on your instincts. Don’t overthink. Just play like you always have. Stay calm. Do whatever you’ve always done to be successful.”

Good advice for life, and for executing a play the NFL has never seen in 102 years.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column