Fans are outraged at the outcome of Sunday's game between the Lions and the Chicago Bears, and it isn't a big surprise. A rule—one that no one seems to fully understand—became important at the worst possible moment for the Bears and their fans.
Honestly, any win or loss in the NFL is difficult to pin on one single person, event, or decision. Surely September 12, 2010 at Soldier Field is no different.
Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan will (read: should) shoulder some blame for play calling seen as too conservative. Also, the four-minute drill at the end of the game was poorly executed; resulting in a three-and-out with little time taken off the clock.
On the other side of the ball, the defense played extremely well but made costly mistakes leading to long touchdowns.
Clearly, any number of things could've gone better for the Lions on Sunday.
Yet, fans would like to pin this loss solely on one referee who ruled Johnson's apparent touchdown an incompletion.
On MLive's live game-blog, fans were irate. On Twitter, fans immediately tweeted their contempt. "Calvin Johnson Got Robbed" became a page on Facebook with almost 500 members as I wrote this article.
The NFL's definition of a catch is long, complicated and easily misunderstood by fans who confuse it with everything they assume to know about the game of football.
It certainly doesn't help that many feel the NFL's application of the ruling is inconsistent.
A Few Myths That Need to be Cleared Up
It doesn't matter that Johnson was in the end-zone—not one bit.
Many confuse the play in question with a ball carrier who crosses the plane of the goal line and loses control of the ball after that.
The two are incongruent.
A run into the end-zone is not the same as a catch in the end-zone. In fact, the end-zone has nothing to do with anything. A catch is a catch is a catch—in the field of play, on the sidelines falling out of bounds or in the end-zone.
Myth number two: because Johnson was down in-bounds and then went out of the back of the end-zone, the play was over.
This situation is comparable to a receiver catching a ball on the sidelines with both feet down in-bounds before hitting his back on the sidelines, jarring the ball loose.
That is an incompletion.
If the same player maintains possession after hitting his back, but rolls over and loses the ball in mid-roll, he does not have possession.
That too, is an incompletion.
The NFL's Actual Rule, While Long and Convoluted, Confirms the Play was Called Correctly
The rule, as stated, is (portions bolded for emphasis):
"A player is in possession when he is in firm grip and control of the ball inbounds. To gain possession of a loose ball that has been caught, intercepted or recovered, a player must have complete control of the ball and have both feet completely on the ground inbounds or any other part of his body, other than his hands, on the ground inbounds.
"If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any other part of his body to the ground or if there is any doubt that the acts were simultaneous, there is no possession. This rule applies to the field of play and in the end zone."
If the rule ended there, Johnson would probably be a much happier man at this moment, as would many Lions fans. But the rule doesn't end there. Like any convoluted rule of its kind, it continues with additions to the basic definition.
In a note on the ruling on the definition of a catch, the NFL adds:
"A player who goes to the ground in the process of attempting to secure possession of a loose ball (with or without contact by a defender) must maintain control of the ball after he touches the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone.
"If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, there is no possession. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, it is a catch, interception or recovery."
So, the rule has a few very simple parts:
- The player needs to be in control of the ball.
- The player must establish himself inbounds.
- The player must maintain control of the ball before, during, and after contact with defenders or the ground.
The NFL's head of officiating, Mike Pereira was quick on the trigger during the game telecast to explain to viewers why, according to the NFL, it was a not a touchdown catch.
"But even after he came down with both feet in bounds, as he hit the ground, the ball popped loose and the ruling on the field was an incomplete pass, which was the correct call...A play from start to finish is a process. When you go to the ground, even after you've caught the ball, you have to maintain possession."
Now, the fans' argument to that is simple. CJ had control, they say, and the ball didn't pop loose. Rather he intentionally dropped it, thinking the play was completed. If a referee thought it was a touchdown, he might have thought the same thing.
The problem is, the NFL has not yet mastered mindreading technology. In a situation like that, a referee cannot tell if a player drops a ball or it comes out unintentionally. Frankly, neither can anyone else no matter how slowly the replay is viewed. Therefore, deciding on plays like Megatron's catch (or incompeletion) will always be a judgment call.
The actual referee who made the call, Gene Sternatore, says "the process [of catching the ball] was not finished until he finished that roll and the entire process of that catch."
Did the ball come out?
Should the rule be changed?
Another question should be more pressing for Johnson, the coaching staff, the media, and for Lions fans.
When CJ had the ball in the air, in two hands, why did he then have the ball in only one?
The answer is simple, to brace himself as he was falling.
A prudent move? Yes. But one that can result in an incompletion in many situations. This time, it did. While he was getting up, the ball came out. Judging a player's intention isn't a call the referees can make. Whether the ball came out, however, is an easy call to make.
Coach Jim Schwartz agrees: "The rule is if you are going to the ground in the process of making the catch, you need to finish with the football, and we didn't finish with the football."
Lots of "what ifs" can come into play in any football game.
The easiest question to both ask and answer for this game is: "What if Johnson simply held on to the football as he stood up?"
That would've been a touchdown.
Michael Schottey is the Managing Editor of the College Writing Internship at Bleacher Report and a NFL Featured Columnist. Mike is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a credentialed member of the NFL media. Follow Mike on Twitter