PITTSBURGH — Here we go again. What the hell is a catch?
In what was the most exciting, gorgeous, wild, insane, unbelievable, staggering game of the year so far, featuring some of the greatest players in the sport's history, it came down to the call of a game official and that question we ask all the time: What the hell is a catch?
If you want to understand why the NFL continues to thrive despite going through one of the ugliest times in its history, this game is why. It will spawn arguments and conspiracy theories for years to come. Controversy fuels the modern NFL the way hemoglobin fuels blood.
To be clear: It wasn't a catch. It just wasn't. In the final, soon-to-be infamous moments of Sunday's game between the Patriots and Steelers—the top two teams in the AFC—Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James lost control of the football as he went to the ground. It wasn't a touchdown by any definition of an NFL catch. The rule is as bright as a neon light.
A player going to the ground during the process of making a catch must control the ball through the fall. Officials believed (correctly) James lost control after hitting the ground.
That is the proper call. But facts won't matter, and that's the NFL's fault.
The league has muddled what a catch is, and now few people fully understand it. Years ago, when a player had the football in his hands and crossed the goal line, it was a catch. Simple. Then came the Calvin Johnson rule. Then came Dez Caught It and a million other catch/non-catch controversies that have happened since. So now, no one has a clue what it means to catch a football.
Patriots 27, Steelers 24. Catch controversies: 1 million.
The play came after the Patriots' furious comeback—this is what Tom Brady does all the damn time—to take a 27-24 lead. The Steelers got the football with 52 seconds left, and on the first play, Ben Roethlisberger hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for 69 yards to the New England 10.
On the next play, Roethlisberger hit James, and the ball popped loose as he hit the ground.
"It was just trying to make a football play and win the game," James said.
Replay official Terri Valenti verified the call, and the Steelers drive ended with Roethlisberger being intercepted by safety Duron Harmon after a Dan Marino-like fake spike. (Roethlisberger said it wasn't a fake. He was going to spike it, but coaches on the sideline yelled for him not to as he took the snap, so he didn't.)
The game was an intense, wild ride. But it's the non-catch that will live forever.
"You know, I don't have HD [television] and all that stuff," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, when asked about the final play. "So it's irrelevant how I feel about it, to be honest with you. It's not going to change the outcome of the game. I'm not going to cry over spilled milk and all of that crap and talk about replay. I ain't doing it."
"I thought he crossed the plane before the ball hit the ground," Roethlisberger said. "But the rule is you must possess it all the way through."
It's a stupid rule. But it is a rule.
Referee Tony Corrente, in remarks made to the game's pool reporter, said the receiver must "survive the ground." Which is incredibly NFL-ian.
Dean Blandino, the league's former head of officiating and a current Fox rules analyst, explained further on Twitter:
Dean Blandino @DeanBlandino
That’s the rule and it’s a bright line. If you are going to the ground to make the catch you have to hold onto the ball when you land. He isn’t a runner until he completes the catch so goal line is not a factor. It’s an incomplete pass.2017-12-18 00:24:37
In the Steelers locker room, there was a sense of shock. Even Le'Veon Bell declined to answer questions from reporters, a rarity for him. They had this game.
"We'll see them again," wide receiver Eli Rogers said, "and the outcome will be different."
In the Patriots locker room, there was a sense of shock. They knew they had the game, no matter how bleak it looked.
"Whenever you have Brady, you are never out of it," said tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had nine catches for 168 yards
"You think you've seen it all with Brady, then he does something even greater that makes you shake your head in disbelief," Patriots safety Devin McCourty added.
The game had magnanimous results. Brady again showed why he's eternal. Roethlisberger played wonderfully. Gronk was a terror. The game was crazy fun. Overall, it likely means the AFC playoffs will now go through New England. If they do, there's a high probability the Patriots will be in the Super Bowl yet again.
But that's the distant future. For now, what the game meant is that a non-catch will be the biggest topic in the NFL. Again.
"I know it's always hard to know," McCourty said. "When he hits the ground, is it a catch or not a catch?"
It's become harder than math. The problem the league faces is the eye test. To the eye, to most, you look at that play and believe it's a catch.
The NFL, though, makes everything far more complicated. The league treats something as simple as a catch like plans to build a space station.
So, yes, the refs got the call—as the rules require it to be made—correct. But it just looks wrong.
And it leads to the question everyone will be asking. Again.
What the hell is a catch?
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.