Let’s not go to the super-slo videotape replay from that great Patriots-Steelers game last Sunday.
After several centuries of debate, we still do not know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But football philosophers do know what constitutes a “catch” in the National Football League. Here is Al Riveron, Senior Vice President of Officiating, for the NFL explaining a ruling on Sunday night that might charitably be called “controversial”:
[Ben] Roethlisberger completes a pass to James, and James is going to the ground as he reaches the goal line. That’s the key here. He is going to the ground. By rule, to complete the process of the catch, he must survive the ground. By that, we mean he must maintain control of the football.… He does put the ball over the goal line extended. Once he gets there, he loses control of the football, and then the ball hits the ground.… So therefore, two things occur: He loses control of the football, and the ball touches the ground prior to him regaining control. Therefore, the ruling on the field of a touchdown was changed to an incomplete pass.
Thanks for clearing that up, Al.
The “incomplete pass” ruling cost the Pittsburgh Steelers a critical game and possible “home field advantage” in the post-season playoff. It was made, not by an official who was standing a couple of feet away from the players involved, but by people in a remote location, studying video and conscientiously counting those angels.
“I count twenty thousand, Al,” says one. “Give or take.”
“Not good enough. I need a precise count. The Big Guy won’t accept anything less.”
So, back to counting until it is possible to come up with a precise number of angels.
And even then …
The ruling was made and Riveron explained it and still there was fierce discontent among the faithful. And not all of them Steelers fans.
On the internet, you could find serious, committed followers of the NFL who believed the ruling was clearly, absolutely, unequivocally… incorrect.
As, for instance, Robert Mays of The Ringer who wrote:
… by any rational definition, what took place on the throw to James should be considered a catch and a touchdown. If a player has possession of the ball when it crosses the plane of the end zone, his team should get six points. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. If anyone can watch a given replay and determine with certainty whether a play results in a catch, we should put that human in charge of solving global warming, because they’re the smartest person on the planet.
On the other hand, here is Kevin Seifer writing at SB Nation:
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James absolutely, positively did not catch the game-winning touchdown against the New England Patriots. The catch rule, as we all know and hate it, declares clearly that a player going to the ground while making a catch must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of going to the ground.
Controversial calls by the officials are among the NFL’s woes in this, its season of discontent. But there have always been close calls. Was the runner’s knee down? Did the receiver get both feet down in bounds while establishing control of the football. And, then, just what is “holding.” Or, proceeding even further into the mists of ambiguity, how do you define “pass interference”?
There are rule books, written in language that only lawyers speak fluently. Still, there is always controversy. That comes with the game and you figure that, like bad breaks, unfair calls will even out. Maybe the Steelers will get theirs back if they face the Patriots in the playoffs.
Where the NFL has found yet another way to frustrate its loyal fan base is with the pretense of absolute, empirical certainty. Why they have replays of video and experts in remote locations studying them to make sure they “get it right.”
The experts are human and their eyes aren’t any better than the average fan’s. Unless, that is, the average fan is into a little more than his average intake of beer. Millions of people saw that play in which Jesse James (great name, huh?) either did, or did not, score a touchdown. None of them are going to start thinking that they didn’t see what they saw just because some “expert” sitting in front of a console someplace saw it differently.
In another of Sunday’s games, there was a measurement to establish whether team had advanced the ball enough to gain first down. The zebras used a piece of paper to establish the gap between the nose of the ball and the last link on the chain that measures a distance of ten yards.
Now, here is a place where the NFL could go all high tech and get an empirically unchallengeable ruling. Do away with the whole business of chains and down markers. Stick some kind of chip in the ball, use laser range finders of the sort employed by military snipers and get some precision in the determination of what does and does not constitute a first down.
Judgment calls will, on the other hand, always come down to some official’s… well, judgment.
Steelers vs. Patriots was the game that the NFL had been needing all season. It was even played in some real football weather. The shame is that was decided by an official and not even one who was on the field and saw what he saw.
The evidence of his eyes was overruled.
Which pretty much sums up that state of denial which currently infects and poisons the NFL.