“Touch Down”: Lions Should Be 1-0

>> 9.14.2010

Chris Spielman once scored a touchdown for the Lions.  When he got into the end zone, he got both knees on the ground, and touched the ball to the turf—just as, many years ago, was required for a “touch down” to be scored.  He did it to pay his respects to the men who played the game sixty, seventy, eighty years ago—before multiple referees and a panoply of high-speed HD digital cameras continuously observed every square inch of the field.  Apparently, this is the standard we need to return to.

It's been beat to death by now.  The fires of my rage—not easily stoked—have cooled down.  Injustice has been done; the Lions had their game-winning touchdown against the Bears wiped off the books by a bad call.  As infuriating as it is, it is—and we either have to deal with it, process it, and move on, or seriously question our faith in the entity that rules the sport, and team, we love.

As The Big Lead and Pro Football Talk both explained very well, NFL officials incorrectly—or at best, zealously—applied one clause in the rule book, while steadfastly ignoring another.  The result is that the Lions lost what would have been a tremendous season-opening road win, and started back down the path to an 0-and-who-knows-how-many losing streak.

First, let's talk about what a catch is.  Per the NFL rule book:

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.

If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body other than his hands to the ground, or if there is any doubt that the acts were simultaneous, it is not a catch.

The clause that was applied was the “going to the ground” clause:

Item 1: Player Going to the Ground.  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 after he touches 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.

It’s long been the rule that if a player catches the ball in midair, and lands on the ground, and the ball popped out, then it’s not a catch.  Picture a receiver with the ball cradled loosely in his arms, and then it popping out when he hits the turf—clearly, he never had possession.  If he didn’t have it secured enough to withstand hitting the ground, then he didn’t really have it at all.

But Calvin Johnson DID “maintain control of the ball after he touche[d] the ground.”  He caught the ball with his hands, landed with two feet, his knee hit, his butt hit, his other hand hit (possibly out of bounds, ending the play there if it already wasn’t over), and then Johnson touched the ball to the ground, and it popped out.  If that play occurs outside the endzone, he’s down by contact before the ball pops out.  But it wasn’t outside the end zone, he was in it.  That rule goes like this:

Item 3: End Zone Catches. If a player catches the ball while in the end zone, both feet must be completely on the ground before losing possession, or the pass is incomplete.

So we have several competing, conflicting standards in the rule book.  What we don’t have is any of the nonsense being spouted by Mike Pereira, former NFL Director of Officiating, and VP  of Officiating, and current FOX Sports analyst.  All the stuff we heard during the game, about “completing the process” isn’t in the rule rook.  Here’s his article on it for Fox:

Here's why: Rule 8, Section 1, Article 4.

A play from start to finish is a process. When you go to the ground, even after you've caught the ball, you have to maintain possession.

The rule states: If a player goes to the ground . . .

See what he did there?  He cited Rule 8, Section 1, Article 4, and then slipped in his own analysis.  The standards of a “complete process,” or of needing to complete a “second football act,” are not in the rule book, and should not be applied.  Calvin Johnson needed to maintain possession after he touched the ground, and he did that.  By rule, the play was a touchdown—and it was correctly signalled so by the side judge.

Mike Florio conducted a thought experiment that’s sure to illuminate (and infuriate):

Let's look at it this way. If Johnson's catch had occurred at the one, and if while swinging his arm to the ground he would have broken the plane of the goal line, the proper call under the "second act" exception would have been touchdown. And that's the heart of the problem. In an effort to take some of the perceived and/or actual unfairness out of a rule that takes away a catch that viscerally looks like a catch, the league has crafted an exception that isn't in the rule book, and that therefore doesn't -- and can't -- be applied with any consistency.

Tom Kowalski brought this up on 1130 AM this morning.  If everything happens the exact same way on the one-yard line, it would have been ruled a touchdown when he swung his arm down and broke the plane—OR, he would have been ruled down by contact at the one.  Yet, it occurred inside the end zone, where all he has to do is establish possession in bounds, and it ruled incomplete.

Of course, the fact that the Lions really needed this win can’t enter into the discussion.  That Matthew Stafford, and—how is no one talking about this?—Cliff Avril were lost in the effort doesn’t matter. That Shaun Hill’s outstanding job of leading the Lions down the field in the closing minute, and perfect rainbow thrown while being hit, were the kind of last-minute game-winning heroics we’re always the victims, and never beneficiaries of . . . none of it matters.  The refs couldn’t give the Lions the win because they wanted it, because they fought so hard for it, because they desperately needed it, or because they deserved it.

But they should have given the Lions the win, because the Lions won.

Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,chicago bears,calvin johnson,referees,mike pereira,matthew stafford,cliff avril


cjpops,  September 14, 2010 at 11:22 AM  

Alright, it was a bad call. However, can we please stop pretending that this was the most important event in the game?

Including the final drive, Detroit had 168 yards of total offense including 20 yards rushing. This was against a team that gained 463 yards AND turned the ball over 4 times. Read that again and then come to grips with it. This Detroit team played PATHETIC on Sunday and deserved to lose.

I'm as big a Lions fan as the next guy, but, I'm tired of this missed call clouding the perception of game. This was a horrifying display of football from both teams and Detroit was dominated in the game. That is disheartening.

Just imagine the same final score, without the missed call at the end. What would your blog post be covering?

Ty,  September 14, 2010 at 12:06 PM  


To be fair, the Lions defense held a one-point lead for half of a game with sacks, turnovers, and an awesome four-down goal line stand. The blown call was the story of the game, though, and I'd be remiss not to tell it.

Or are you still pumped over that awesome one-hitter Galarraga threw a couple months ago?


Clusterfox,  September 14, 2010 at 12:19 PM  

Hey CJpops,

Accept the fact that people vent/cope/heal in different ways. I'm tired of hearing about it too but mostly because it's another example of the Lions almost getting it done only to have someone take it away.

I have a problem with your mindset(Mostly because I see/hear it alot out of Lions fans). It can be seen in this comment.
"This was a horrifying display of football from both teams and Detroit was dominated in the game". Maybe you've come down to earth after seeing 2 SB favorites battle last night to a 10-9 finish. But Last time I checked you can't be horrible and dominating, and yards mean nothing in football except for the ones between you and the endzone. We were doing exactly what needed to be done to win that game up untill the play Stafford went down. The defense looked signicantly better than projected and aside from a missing W, we beat that team. The questionmarks around Stafford are disheartening, but I'm looking forward to seeing the Lions play the Eagles.
BTW- I'm looking forward to the first W being one that people don't expect, instead of the one everyone is predicting.


Anonymous,  September 14, 2010 at 3:25 PM  

The TD that wasn't WAS the most important play of the game because it resulted in a L, not a W.

When I first saw it in live action I thought CJ bobbled the ball, but the slow motion replays showed that he had possession and control of the ball all the way. Unfortunately, he let go of the ball (did he intend to spike it?) to brake his roll with that hand and I figured that the refs would call it incomplete and they did. If he had held on and pushed off against the ground with the ball then the question is whether the refs could have claimed that he trapped the ball against the ground? If the side judge signals a touch down as CJ is rolling, then doesn't that effectively terminate the "process"? Anyway, I think these rules need immediate revision and/or clarification before another episode like this happens.

I was hoping the lions would go 10-6 but I still think they can go 8-8 and surprise some teams. I was impressed with the defense (I cannot remember the last time they had a successfull goal line stand) but surprised by how ineffective the offense seemed to be. But it is early in the season and if Chicago beats Dallas, the Detroit offensive struggles will be seen in a more favorable light.

James Fowlkes,  September 14, 2010 at 3:46 PM  

Not a Lions fan but saw the play multiple times. It was highway robbery, plain and simple. No question.

A Lion in ViQueen Territory,  September 14, 2010 at 5:42 PM  

I'm still bleeding from that play. I hurt, bro. I shouldn't be so wrapped up in it, but I still hurt.

The only way to share how I feel can only be written by Neil at Armchair Linebacker.

I hurt.

Matt,  September 15, 2010 at 12:09 PM  

Excellent analysis of what is actually written in the rulebook, Ty. I heard all of the different explanations of why it WASN'T a catch over the weekend and none of them sat quite right with me (though, clearly, I had a reason to be biased). I never bothered to actually look up the rules myself. Those explanations all centered around the idea that Megatron's non-TD was a catch in "spirit," but not by the rules. Your analysis, which, unlike other explanations, cites the actual text of the rulebook, makes it clear that THAT explanation is false: it was a catch both ways.

This is the kind of stuff that makes being a Lions fan just brutal. I didn't think it could get much worse after an 0-16 season, but this call and Stafford's injury somehow made it so. Maybe it's my bias again, but this kind of stuff only seems to happen to the Lions. If Randy Moss or Larry Fitzgerald or Andre Johnson make that exact same play, is it still ruled a non-catch? I'm not sure.

cjpops,  September 15, 2010 at 1:38 PM  

@Cluster -

"But Last time I checked you can't be horrible and dominating"

Sure you can, if you are playing the Lions. =)

Detroit was dominated in every statistical category except turnovers (and the Lions did everything they could to "tie the score" in TOs at 3-4...they came so close!). The only reason that the Bears weren't KILLING the Lions in that game was due to those turnovers and foolish coaching decisions.

The Bears were mistake prone and made very curious coaching/play calling decisions. Bad? Yes. But, Detroit was much, MUCH worse.

@Ty -

"To be fair, the Lions defense held a one-point lead for half of a game with sacks, turnovers, and an awesome four-down goal line stand. The blown call was the story of the game, though, and I'd be remiss not to tell it."

True - they did hold a 1 point lead for half of the game. The other side of that story is that the offense did nothing to extend the lead against a Bears team that was apparently trying to give the game away at every turn. The goal line stand, while awesome, should've never happened. Inexplicably, the Bears coaching staff (faced with a completely inept 2nd half Detroit offense) went for the TD instead of the chip shot FG. If the situation was reversed, wouldn't you be questioning Schwartz on that decision today?

Look - I'm confused by the TD over rule. I want the Lions to win. I'm a lifelong fan and supporter. However, the reality is the Lions did not play good football on Sunday. They haven't for a long time. That play was a sad end to a equally sad day and I'm not about to let the unfortunate over rule overshadow the "same 'ol Lions" play for 59 minutes and 29 seconds. The ruling on the catch is big, but, it does not and should not excuse or cover up the preceding display by our Gridiron Gladiators.

You are correct to tell the story of the touchdown that wasn't but should've been. However, there is more to tell Basically, the story of the Lions for me is the lack of improvement and results since the Millen era. The 'new and improved' Detroit offense had 9 drives of 3 plays (4 of them led by Stafford in the 1st half).

I do appreciate the analysis of the rule book and the events surrounding that incorrect call and (for lack of a better word) cover up/CYA by the NFL afterwards. Kudos to you and the coverage you provide.

Angus Osborne,  September 15, 2010 at 3:50 PM  

The end of that game was gut-wrenching.

I think it would have been quite easy for the officials to award that touchdown. But if they had, and the Bears had challenged the play would it have stood?

I think the Lions can overcome this and win the next game. It's not a given, but they can do it.

Ty,  September 15, 2010 at 10:38 PM  


First, thanks. Heh, I was bummed I didn't get the article turned around before everyone got bored of it.

"BTW- I'm looking forward to the first W being one that people don't expect, instead of the one everyone is predicting."

Yeah. This. There's a reason I call the rundown-of-the-schedule-record-prediction a "completely useless waste of time," because on any given Sunday, one team can beat another. I really do feel as though this team's talent has ascended to the level where they can compete with very good teams, and you never know. I also don't believe in "gimme" wins . . .


Clusterfox,  September 16, 2010 at 12:45 PM  


Again man. Your killing me.

The only reason that the Bears weren't KILLING the Lions in that game was due to those turnovers and foolish coaching decisions.

So in other words: The only reason the bears weren't killing the Lions was because....wait for it....They didn't have more points than us. So We were winning a game that the bears should have been winning, only to allow a ref to give it back to them on the last play. Perhaps we've stumbled upon Schwartz's feelings. How can you be mad at a ref for taking away a W you really didn't earn? Well IMO because refs aren't Judges, and Teams win by default every week in the NFL, just not the Lions.


Anonymous,  September 16, 2010 at 4:07 PM  

Do Peter O'Toole and Katherene Hepburn play?

They wern't half bad in The Lion in Winter(1968)

No siree bob

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tfwire,  October 30, 2010 at 2:36 PM  

too true

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