Heroic Dez Bryant catch erased from history by technicality

The Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers played an epic playoff game earlier today, but the above clip is what will leave a lasting mark moving forward. With a shade under 5:00 left in the 4th quarter and the Packers clinging to a five-point lead, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo unleashed a beautifully thrown jump ball to his top target — Dez Bryant — on 4th and 2, and for a minute it looked like the Cowboys were on the verge to seizing control of the game.

After the catch was reviewed, however, head official Gene Steratore determined that Bryant “did not maintain possession of the football during the process of the catch. The ball comes loose, hits the ground, therefore the ruling is an incomplete forward pass.”

As I was watching the game live, I wanted badly for it to be a catch. After all, the moment had everything: It was fourth down; Dallas was trailing by five, so they were going for six instead of three; Tony Romo; Dez fucking Bryant; it was a truly awesome moment in an NFL postseason game.

That the Cowboys inevitably lost because of this call sucks. The Packers assumed possession and bled the clock out. So, what was a great play by Dez is now more like the great play that never happened. We will never know what would have happened if Dallas took a 29-26, or even 27-26 lead with four and a half minutes to go.

That last sentence is where I’m drawing the line when I say, shit, that blows, instead of bemoaning the officials for ruling as they did because it was the Cowboys, or some conspiracy theory about how the NFL is against Jerry Jones or Tony Romo or Dez Bryant or whatever. Or that the officials have something against the Cowboys.

If you reverse the situation, put the Packers trailing 26-21 and Aaron Rodgers throwing a 4th and 2 jump ball to Jordy Nelson, with the same thing happening, the NFL would have to carry out the letter of the law. Even Mike Pereira — FOX’s hotshot officiating expert — broke it down while it was happening:

And the rule is pretty specific: in the process of going to the ground if the ball touches the ground and comes loose, then it’s an incomplete pass. The ground can cause an incomplete pass.

I’m not a fan of Pereira, but it seems pretty cut and dry based on that. Bryant went up, caught the ball, then after the faintest obstruction from Packers corner Sam Shields, Dez tries to maintain control as he goes to the ground. In his left hand as he comes to the ground, the ball and tundra do make contact, and the ball jars loose.

By rule, I think the referee made the right call, even though the fan in me wanted so so so much for it to be a catch. I like Tony Romo and I love Dez Bryant as football players, and I would have loved to see Aaron Rodgers get the ball back with the game on the line. And for the Cowboys — who proved without a doubt they belonged on the field with one of the NFL’s best — to have had the chance to make a defensive stop and rematch the Seahawks in the NFC Championship.

Instead, we’ll remember this game more for the what ifs and an unpopular call on the field. After a great game, that’s what’s most disappointing about the outcome. Dez Bryant deserves credit for a great catch, Romo for a great game, and the Cowboys in general for a great season.

I’m not upset with the call Steratore arrived at, just that the game had to end because of it.

5 responses

  1. The biggest problem I have with the whole thing is that even the NFL doesn’t seem to understand their own “rule”. They’ve got their talking heads like Pereira, that now “works for Fox”, playing damage control and citing only one part of their rules regarding catches.

    The biggest thing being missed is that these so-called “experts” aren’t addressing that the way the rules read, there are two sections. One addresses a catch going to the ground, and the other addresses what constitutes a catch. Beyond just the fact that they seemingly negate one another and make things more confusing — not to mention that “etc.” is mentioned as an “act common to the game”, leaving it entirely open to interpretation — there’s one important distinction. For all the talk about how they were looking for him to make a “football move” or “an act common to the game” in order to complete the process of the catch, the rules are very clear that’s not even required. As a matter of fact, there are two notes below where it talks about the act common to the game that read as follows:

    “Note 1: It is not necessary that he commit such an act, provided that he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so.

    Note 2: If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered a loss of possession. He must lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession.”

    So yeah, for all the talk about how they supposedly determined that reaching for the end zone wasn’t a “football move” or an “act common to the game”, he didn’t even need to do that to “complete the process of the catch”. The fact that he even tried to do that should have been further evidence that it was a catch. But because every network has their own expert or rules analyst that still cleans up the league’s dirty laundry, anyone that wanted to see Dallas lose is pointing to that as evidence that the right call was made.

    Needless to say, I’m a bit salty about it. You of all people know I’m not a big fan of the human element in sports. In this case, no one can convince me that the right call was made, or that Gene Steratore even understands the rules as they’re written. Do they need an overhaul? Absolutely. Unfortunately, in this case, too many people, including Steratore, the talking heads, etc. never bothered to actually understand the way the rule actually read. In this case, it very well may have cost Dallas their best chance to win a Super Bowl for the foreseeable future. Tony Romo’s back isn’t going to magically get younger, and I can’t envision any scenario in which with Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray are back next season. Couple that with the talk of Marinelli bolting for Tampa, and this might have been the chance. No wonder I’ve always liked baseball better.

    • It just… sucks, I guess. The human element is what it is, and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, even though there will always be absolutists who want to get rid of them altogether. I’m definitely for robot umps in baseball, but if it took until 2014 to expand instant replay, that puts us on track for around 2080 before the experimentation of an objective computerized strike zone gets introduced.

      So, instead, I’m pretty practical. The human element shouldn’t impact football games like it did in Sunday’s game between Dallas and Green Bay, but the rule itself is even dumber.

      • Yeah, I definitely agree. You get guys like Steratore in there, and he’s literally the only guy in the league that interprets it that way without exception.

        Also, glad to see I’m not the only one that would be on board for robot umps.

    • When I was 14, 15 and 16, my best friend at the time’s parents had NFL Sunday Ticket — the most bitchin’ thing, ever. So every Sunday I would be over there, and we’d watch games for Fantasy Football reasons over our favorite teams. (In retrospect, that was a surprisingly meritocratic way to watch football at that those ages.)

      Anyway, he and I both liked watching Gene Steretore’s games because he was by far the cleanest on the mic.

      I think every NFL referee has made multiple fucked up, wrong calls, over the course of their careers. Steretore, even though he fits into that group, always explains himself thoroughly (almost unnecessarily sometimes), and I appreciate that as a fan. I thought his in-game, in-the-moment reasoning was important to include in this article because I think we can agree he was in a difficult spot. Either way he went was going to create a controversy — since this is the goddamn playoffs, after all — and he chose the safe route and Dallas got screwed because of it.

      At the same time, had he called it a completed catch, Green Bay would have had their own beef with Steretore. This is assuming that the Packers wouldn’t have ended up winning the game anyway.

      • Bit late getting back here to this, but yeah, I’d imagine Green Bay still probably would have gone down the field to win… but fuck, I wanted Dallas to at least have a chance, and anyone who watched Dallas this year knew that needed to prevent one first down to get the ball back didn’t really constitute “a chance” for that defense.

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