|Today's riddle: When is an obvious catch not a catch?|
There are two kinds of people who thought Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant didn’t make an incredible catch to put his team in position to take the lead late in yesterday’s playoff game against the Green Bay Packers: Packers fans blinded by partisanship, and referees. Well, three kinds, if you count pompous gasbags like Mike Pereira, who can be counted upon to defend the indefensible.
OK, let’s get a few things out of the way early. First, Curmie was rooting for the Packers. Curmie’s Dad, though he grew up in New Hampshire and as far as I know never set foot in the state of Wisconsin, was a die-hard Packers fan, and whereas I ultimately switched my primary allegiance to the now utterly hapless New York Jets, I can still tell you Green Bay’s entire starting lineup, both offense and defense, in the most famous game between the Packers and Cowboys, the “Ice Bowl” of 1967. So don’t think Curmie’s judgment was clouded by living in Texas (albeit he has a lot of friends—students and former students, mostly—who are Cowboys fans).
Let us further note the irony that if not for the reversal of the original ruling that Bryant had indeed caught the ball, the most controversial (a.k.a. “awful”) call of the season may well have occurred last week, when the zebras inexplicably picked up a flag against Cowboys’ linebacker Anthony Hitchens on one of the most obvious pass interference infractions Curmie has ever seen. The initial ruling was argued by—of all people—Dez Bryant, who ran onto the field without his helmet on (which should have been an automatic penalty). Former NFL referee Jim Daopoulos said it was “unbelievable that they didn’t call it…. I can’t imagine an explanation for that; there is no explanation for that.”
Finally, let us grant that the call didn’t, all by itself, cost the Cowboys the game, any more than the no-calls against Hitchens and Bryant put them in position to even be playing yesterday afternoon. Had the obvious catch been ruled as… you know… a catch, Dallas might well have fumbled on the next play. Or, had they scored, Green Bay still would have had four minutes or so to answer. Remember that the Packers ran out the clock already in field goal position, and even if Dallas had successfully converted a two-point attempt after their (likely) touchdown, a field goal for the Packers would have sent the game into overtime, with the Packers having home-field advantage, momentum, and a better kicking game.
The most troublesome thing about yesterday’s call is that it might, technically, have been correct, so inane is the NFL’s definition of what constitutes a catch. Here’s the official rule, as cited by Sports Illustrated’s Greg A. Bedard:
Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3. Completed or Intercepted Pass.
A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:
(a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
(b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands.
Now we get to the dicey third part.
…and (c) maintains control of the ball long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.).
And its cousin, the “Player Going to the Ground” addendum in Item 1.
If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.
The concept of “football move” was defined further by former NFL referee Jerry Markbreit as “stretching for a first down, diving out-of-bounds or running with the ball. If the ‘football move’ is accomplished, and the receiver is then hit and the ball comes out, it is ruled a catch and fumble, instead of an incomplete forward pass.”
So, let’s see. Bryant catches the ball, takes three steps, and dives towards the endzone, extending the ball in front of him, hoping to score. Somewhere in there is a “football move” according to any reasonable definition. He was stretching for a touchdown, even if not obviously enough for the folks who handle the video replays… but he also ran with the ball, even if he was losing his balance (having been at least bumped by the defensive back) in the process. It might also be worth noting that it’s really, really close as to whether Bryant’s knee hit before or after the ball came loose… certainly too close to overturn a call either way.
In other words, Bryant caught the ball. Period. End of discussion. By my figuring, the rules would support that conclusion: three steps, followed by reaching for the endzone, still fully in control of the ball. But if the rules really do disagree with the lived reality of everyone who saw the play, then maybe it’s the rules that ought to change. This brouhaha represents a variation on the inanity of zero tolerance policies: these are the rules, and we’re going to enforce them, no matter how stupid we look in the process. (This is why Curmie is a Confucian.)
Because that’s really what’s at stake here: the reputation of the league. The headline at the Huffington Post concludes “…Because NFL Rules Make Sense To No One.” More to the point, perhaps, is Bedard’s conclusion: “if reasonable people can look at the Bryant play and deem it a catch… then the rule, which was used to explain why it isn’t a catch, stinks. And it should be thrown out.”
Yes, yes it should. The NFL has had a really bad year off the field, with Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson attracting more attention than the league’s stars (and with some pretty wretched decisions by the league office about their cases), not to mention the absurd overturning of the suspension of notorious cheap-shot artist Ndamukong Suh (thereby completing the Lions/Packers/Cowboys circle of bad calls). And now yet another patently stupid call by the zebras dominates the discussion as we head into Conference Championship weekend.
Don’t give me rules; give me football. Or just continue to be irrelevant; I’ll cheerfully watch college basketball.