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What's Wrong With the NFL Rules Regarding What Constitutes a Catch?
What is wrong?
If you watch the play, very few will deny that Dez initially caught and had control of the ball. With the ball securely in hand, he took a step, took another step, then lunged, ball stretched out ahead, reaching to try to break the plain of the end zone with the ball. When the ball then hits the ground it comes loose from his hand, but he never actually lost possession of the ball. He re-secured the ball in the bend of his arm. He never actually dropped it, even when he lost control. Yet, Head Referree Gene Steratore, said he dropped it. This was with the benefit of actually being able to watch it all play out in super slow motion. In fact, the referree on the field who watched it happen in real time ruled it a catch. It's only after Steratore watched the footage in slow motion that he deemed it an incomplete pass.
Why? Well, let's assess ...
It's late in the 4th quarter. Dallas is down five points, 26 to 21. There's just four minutes left in the game. Dallas has the ball and the down is 4th and 2. If Dallas doesn't complete a play of 2 yards or more then Green Bay gets the ball back with four minutes left, where they don't need to score, they just need to protect their five point lead.
Rather than simply trying to run the ball or complete a short pass on 4th down, the Cowboys go all out. They go for a 40 yard pass to Dez Bryant. Dez, being the incredible athlete he is, does what he has to do to go up and get that ball. He makes an incredible catch that should have put the Cowboys in control of the game. Because he should have been ruled down inside the 1 yard line, the Cowboys could have taken their time, running as much time off of the clock as they could, before they scored. This would have left the Packers very little time to run back down the field to then have to score a field goal to win.
So, yes, this call most likely changed the outcome of the game. The Dallas Cowboys should have won this game. They were the better team that day.
Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 reads: "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."
"After review, it has been determined that the receiver did not maintain possession of the football during the process of the catch. The ball comes loose and hits the ground, therefore the ruling is an incomplete forward pass." - Gene Steratore, Head Referree
The "Incomplete" Catch
I keep hearing analysts defend this call as the right call. And in doing so they keep siting the rule being followed to the letter. So let's assess this play in light of the wording of the rule.
It begins with "If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass...", and already there's a problem. By the time we get to the point in question where the ball hit the ground and came loose, Dez was no longer "in the act of catching the pass". If Dez was able to take two steps and then lunge forward with the ball stretched out, then he is no longer in the process of catching the pass. The pass is already caught.
So none of the rest of the rule even applies. We're no longer assessing a situation that applies directly to this rule because he was no longer in the act of catching the pass. It's really that simple. If Dez had caught the ball in the same way, then took two steps in the same way, only going out of bounds instead of into the end zone, then those two steps along with control of the ball would have been enough to award him possession. So why is that not enough in this case? If this call was correct according to the rule, then the rules are inconsistent in what constitutes possession.
When this call was first announced I felt physically sick. Now, full disclosure, I'm a Cowboys fan. But I can honestly say that even if the tables were turned and this was a Packer catch that was reversed in the Cowboys favor, I'd still agree that it was a catch. Even to the detriment of my preferred team. Why? Because it's honest and it's the right thing to do. To recognize the skill and the fact that a player made a legitimate play within the bounds of the rules when the play needed to be made. That's what the game is all about. Moments just like that.
What I think made me most sick about this call was that Tony Romo made a clutch throw, and Dez Bryant made a clutch catch, during a risky 4th and 2 play, they both did what they had to do to take control and win that game. Not only do I think Dez deserves the credit for making an incredible catch, but with all of the criticism that Romo has taken for not being able to deliver in the playoffs, he probably needed this more than Dez. Now history is going to show Romo falling short yet again, rather than acknowledging the incredible game he had that day.
Not only that, but this year's Cowboys team deserved their playoff run this year. It's a difficult thing to put a team together, made up of 60+ players and coaches, that has the right chemistry, the right skill, and the right attitude to have such a successful season. This year's Cowboys won 13 of the 16 games they played. Not just that but in more than one of those games they found themselves down by multiple touchdowns, only to fight their way back into the game and find a way to win it.
This was a legitimately good team this year that got robbed of their playoff run by an ambiguous rule and a logic-defying call. And Tony Romo had a legitimately strong year, and play-off run, that should have been enough to silence his critics. Instead, it ended like this.
Not to mention, whenever Aaron Rodgers was asked at the end of the game his opinion, and he sided with the ref's call, and every NFL spokesperson who has continued to side with the referree in this call, they have all lost some of my respect. Which in the case of Rodgers is unfortunate, because I respect him as a quarterback and competitor. If you have any respect for the game you are playing, if you have any respect for your fellow athletes, then the right call is to acknowledge what's really right in this situation. What's really right is that the Dallas Cowboys completed a risky play in a clutch moment when it really mattered, and should have won that game. Instead, the history books will show this year's team as losers, and that's wrong.