These replacement refs have caused quite a stir in the past three weeks, and at this point, the game ending call on MNF may have ended the labor dispute between the NFL and the NFLRA. Everyone seems to be pointing at that last second call as the most egregious error in the history of professional sports, but I’m here to present the case on why the replacement refs might have actually gotten that call right.
I’m going to preface this by saying by no means do I think that the replacement refs have been doing an great job in administering the rules of the NFL. I’ll also say they haven’t been completely atrocious as has been indicated by the rants of Steve Young, Trent Dilfer, Drew Brees and this moronic New Jersey senator. They haven’t been significantly different from the regular refs as far as number of penalties called in games, which this Wall Street Journal article points out. They have, however, been calling different types of penalties more (pass interference and defensive holding) and others less (illegal shifts). Whether they are missing a lot of calls, I can’t really say, but since when did we live in a world where ref’s never miss a call. Anyhow, back to my ‘Contrary Mary’ case for the right judgement call on that infamous final play in the Packer Seahawks game on Monday night.
I’ll start with the notion that EVERY PASS is an INCOMPLETE PASS until COMPLETED. This may sound a bit weird (or completely obvious), but it’s that subtle difference that I want your mindset to be in. I mean, when you really think about it, a pass spends 99.99% of its time incomplete before it is actually caught.
Now, what does it mean for a catch to be a catch (oh, the philosophy of it all)? Well, the NFL has defined that for us, and in summary, three things need to happen for a catch to be a catch:
1. The Ball Must Be Secure – this basically means the ball can’t be moving around whilst in your possession.
2. Two Feet Down – you need to have two feet down in the field of play (tippy toes and derrières count here as well).
3. Keep Control to the Ground – this was a new caveat introduced last year (any Detroit fan will know this one). It is saying that when you hit the ground, the ball can’t come loose, or in other words, you need to maintain control when hitting the ground.
This DOES NOT mean that these three things have to happen in order. You could be lying on the ground first (thus fulfilling 2 and 3) and then have a ball land in your hands (item 1) and that would be a catch. I also want to point out that an interception is ALSO a catch, and the same three things have to be fulfilled for that to be the case.
Okay, now that the groundwork has been laid out, back to the play in question. In this first still, we’ll see M.D. Jennings in the air with his hands around the ball and Tate’s left hand on the ball in-between Jennings’ arms. Tate’s hand is actually between the ball and Jennings’ chest, and is possibly clutching the bottom nose of the ball. Remember, a pass is always incomplete before it’s complete so we can not call this an INT or a TD until all three requirements are fulfilled. Scorecard: Jennings 1 of 3, Tate 0 of 3.
In this next frame, we’ll see both of Tate’s feet on the ground with Jennings falling partially on top of him. Jennings still has his hands on the ball, and at this point, Tate is reaching around Jennings (intentionally phrased) for the top nose of the football. The important thing to notice here is that Jennings’ left foot has not hit the ground yet. Scorecard: Jennings 1 of 3, Tate 1 of 3.
This last frame shows when Jennings’ 2nd foot finally hits the ground. At this point, it sure looks like Tate has also secured the ball. It is absolutely conceivable that they both could have both their hands securing the ball, Jennings around the long part of the ball, and Tate around the noses (we can’t see EITHER of their hands or the football from this or any angle, so it’s unfair and biased to assume one has the advantage over the other). Scorecard: Jennings 2 of 3, Tate 2 of 3.
The wrestling match on the ground probably safely assures that the 3rd part of a catch (control to the ground) has happened. We don’t see any visual evidence of either one of them losing the ball while on the ground, or anyone gaining an upper hand before the call was made (oddly enough, Tate does emerge with the ball at the very end). Scorecard: Jennings 3 of 3, Tate 3 of 3.
The NFL definition of ‘simultaneous catch’ is “If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.” Notice that they have consistently used the word ‘catch’ and not ‘possession’ in the rule, which indicates that the three criteria of a catch has to be fulfilled first (after all, a catch has to be a catch first before it can be a simultaneous catch). I believe the second half of this rule regarding ‘gaining control’ really applies to wrestling the ball away after a catch is established. If Jennings had gotten his second foot down before Tate wrapped up the ball, then this rule would call it an interception.
But that didn’t happen. The key here is really Jennings’ second foot. To consider that, what would you say if a player does everything Jennings does, but the ball gets knocked out before that left foot gets down? Clear cut incomplete right. What if that ball is up in the air? Live ball right. Until Jennings’ second foot comes down, that ball is still technically incomplete and live. I’m going to finish this off by doing a simple proof to show you why this was a Seattle touchdown, and not a Green Bay interception.
Jennings 3 of 3 = catch
Tate 3 of 3 = catch
Jennings catch = interception
Tate catch = touchdown
catch = catch
By NFL rules, if catch = catch, then touchdown > interception
If anything, this might be the most glowing example of how the replacement refs got a call RIGHT (although procedurally it was … unorthodox). Everyone needs to stop pointing to this as the end-all be-all for the problems with replacement refs, and really focus on the miscues that tilted the game earlier (mainly the roughing the passer which negated a Green Bay INT). And everyone needs to stop acting like this never happens with regular refs. Did we forget the ‘tuck’ rule … or Ed Hochuli’s phantom incomplete pass … or this this seemingly botched call on a coin toss …. A COIN TOSS!?!?