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.