The NFL playoffs have provided some exciting, dramatic and game-stopping action this season. Unfortunately, too much of that game-stopping has occurred when the officials have to huddle or go under the hood to review a play—and then get the calls wrong. As Vince Lombardi once said: “What the hell’s is going on out here?!!”
First we got the call in the Detroit-Dallas Wild Card game in which it is possible that three different penalties could have been called on one play, a flag is thrown and then the referees huddled and picked up the flag. Following that game, the head of referees said that a holding call was missed on the play—a penalty that could have helped the Lions win that game. Instead, the Cowboys moved on to play the Green Packers in Lambeau Field, where vengeful karma awaited Dallas.
In the Packers game, the Cowboys were driving for the go-ahead touchdown late in the game and Tony Romo threw a fourth-down pass to Dez Bryant, who made a great grab and was ruled down inside the one-yard line. The Packers challenged it and the call was overturned—end of the Cowboys’ comeback.
The post-mortem on this play has basically been that the referees got the call right (in the booth, not on the field) and that Bryant did not “complete the process” of making the catch.
"Although the receiver is possessing the football, he must maintain possession of that football throughout the entire process of the catch," referee Gene Steratore, who overturned the call, told the Dallas Morning News after the game. "In our judgment, he maintained possession but continued to fall and never had another act common to the game."
So the refs think that per the rule (which was written for a Calvin Johnson play four years ago and already seems archaic), Bryant apparently didn’t make the catch. I disagree. (So does this writer, who does a very thorough job explaining why.)
In my opinion, the process was complete when he grabbed the ball, switched it to his outside hand and had two feet hit the ground (as he would have to do if he were trying to stay in bounds). Then his legs got caught up with the defender’s (which served as the tackle on this play). From there, Bryant went to the ground, where the ball hit it and caused a fumble--which we all know the ground can’t do. Apparently that is how the ref on the field saw the play. Too bad those watching in New York did not.
Now before anyone accuses me of wanting to get rid of replay, please know that I am for getting the plays called correctly. I have watched too many games in which it is clear that the wrong ruling has been made on the field and instant replay has served to correct it. But sometimes the replay booth creates paralysis by over-analysis, and the artistry of the game—Bryant’s acrobatic catch and intent to stretch for the endzone—can be legislated right out of it.
I contend that the rule has to be redefined somehow. Of course, it doesn’t seem logical or efficient to change a rule every time a new instance occurs that seems to not be covered by the existing rules (although in the game of golf there is a Rules of Golf book and a 500-plus page book called the Decisions on the Rules of Golf to do just that).
But in the case of this catch rule, terms such as “process” or “move common to the game” appear to be vague and ill-defined. The truth is, if Bryant only made moves common to the game, like every other receiver, this likely wouldn’t have happened, or we wouldn’t have cared as much. He made an extraordinary move common to him—stretching to the endzone while in control of the ball and being tackled—and we loved watching him do it. If only moves common to the game are legal, how boring is that?
It’s worth pointing out that this season the officials have made it a “point of emphasis” to not overrule the referees on the field as much. I have voiced my objection to this in the past, since to me the overriding factor in making a ruling should be getting the ruling right—and whether or not it is a result of over-ruling what was called on the field should not enter into the equation. But they did overrule this call, so I guess I should be happy—but I am not.
Perhaps that point of emphasis is an effort to make the refs on the field more responsible for their calls and building their confidence. Well, if that is the case, then they better make the refs on the field better at making calls. Back in the day, former Vikings head coach Bud Grant logged disagreements with referee calls by suggesting that the job of NFL official should be a fulltime one. Decades later that suggestion goes unheeded and we still see incorrect referee decisions affecting ball games.
Ultimately we would like the refs on the field to be better at their jobs. And making it a fulltime job might help in that regard. But Grant’s pleas weren’t considered then and won’t likely be now. (But is it too much to ask that we get more younger refs who can keep up with some of the fastest and best athletes on the planet?)
In the end, however, the thing we can’t forget is that the referees are human beings making split-second decisions--and they are not always going to get the calls right. I don’t buy into all the conspiracy theories about bias toward certain teams, and I believe the refs all want to do a good job and strive to do their best.
We were reminded of that recently when news surfaced about the troubles the replacement ref who made the call in the “Fail Mary” Packers game in Seattle a couple years ago. Since that time he has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, has had suicidal thoughts and is divorced from his wife of 28 years. Apparently because people disagreed with the call he made.
Professional football is big business and there are a lot of careers and money on the line with the judgments, decisions and rulings that these part time officials make. But sometimes it gets too blown out of proportion. We might just want to settle down and remember it is a game.
We should remember that the officials still believe they got the Dez Bryant call right as it is written, so maybe we should take another look at the rule and just see if it is written well, or if we could better define its vague terminology.
But more than anything, we should remember that the refs are humans and do make mistakes. We must continue to get that word out.
Joe Oberle is a senior writer at VikingsJournal.com, covers the NFL for The Sports Post and is managing editor of Minnesota Golfer magazine. He is an author and longtime Minnesota-based writer.