NFL Finds New Way To Beat the Detroit Lions

J. Conrad Guest@https://twitter.com/JConradGuestCorrespondent ISeptember 16, 2010

CHICAGO - SEPTEMBER 12: Calvin Johnson #81 of the Detroit Lions waits for a instant replay ruling on an apparent touchdown catch in the final minute against the Chicago Bears during the NFL season opening game at Soldier Field on September 12, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Lions 19-14. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

You don’t have to be a Detroit Lions fan to know they got shafted in their Week 1 game in Chicago by what the NFL calls “the correct call made in the spirit of the rule.”

Later, during halftime of the first Sunday Night Football game, a survey showed 82 percent of respondents voiced their discontent over the rule.

While the call may indeed have been correct in the spirit of the rule, what of the spirit of the game? Indeed, of the game’s integrity?

I watched that replay last Sunday a dozen times or more, trying to understand the NFL’s reasoning, or, more accurately, the “spirit” behind this rule.

A running back breaks the plane of the goal line with the nose of the football and he immediately scores. He doesn’t have to maintain control of the pigskin; he can get pushed back out of the end zone—it’s his forward momentum that counts. Once the nose of the football breaks the plane of the goal line, the play is considered dead, whether or not his knee touches the ground or whether or not the ball is slapped away by a lineman.

In short, he doesn’t have to demonstrate any control beyond breaking the plane of the goal line.

But a receiver, as was the case with Calvin Johnson, must maintain control of the football from Act 1—the act of catching and maintaining control of the ball—through Act 2, which apparently means the act of celebrating.

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Replays of Johnson’s catch, whether shown at real speed or slow motion, show the same thing: he catches the ball in both hands, maintains control as he shifts the ball into his right hand to break his fall with his left arm, performing a slow pirouette to land, outstretched, on his left hip, both knees on the ground. In the act of getting up to celebrate, Johnson leaves the ball on the ground, something a thousand other ball carriers have done over the years.

It clearly was not an act of losing control of the football. He simply left the ball on the ground.

But the officials, failing to delineate Act 1 from Act 2, claimed that, in the spirit of the new rule, Johnson failed to demonstrate sufficient control.

The end result is that a spirited Lions comeback, ending in a spirited and spectacular end zone catch with seconds left on the clock, wound up getting overturned by a second on-field official—the first spiritedly called it a TD—who, in the spirit of Christmas past, managed to spirit away from the Lions a win they deserved, and the spirit of the Lions faithful was again deflated.

But at least the NFL got the spirit of the rule right. In their opinion.

I understand instant replay is a necessary evil in today’s NFL (even if I’m adamantly against it in MLB); with such a short schedule, a blown call on a single Sunday can have disastrous effects on a team’s chances to make it to the postseason. In this case, the right call, had it been made, would’ve extended the Lions perfect season to 1-0.

But what happened last Sunday to the Lions is unconscionable. And the NFL had the audacity, the unmitigated arrogance, to tell the fans the call was correct because it adhered to the spirit of the rule?

At least when Jim Joyce blew the call that cost Armando Galarraga his perfect game at Comerica Park this past June, both Joyce and MLB admitted the call was blown.

The NFL should man up and admit their rule is flawed, they don’t understand it, nor do their officiating crews, and that in this instance it was misapplied.

I read elsewhere that the rule actually reads: “If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball after he touches the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone.”

Okay, but Calvin Johnson did not go to the ground in the act of catching a pass. Johnson leaped into the air to catch the pass. The catch was completed when both feet came down, ball secure. The ball was still secure when he landed on his side, so the ground had nothing to do with Act 1 of catching the ball.

It seems the NFL, and its officiating crew, have a difficult time understanding the spirit of this rule; and when backed into a corner, they tell us it’s really very simple. If it’s so simple, why did one official correctly rule a touchdown while the second official, who obviously doesn’t understand the rule, wrongly overturned the first one, eventually going to the replay booth to get the play wrong?

If the NFL won’t change the rule—and it won’t be revisited until next March—at least give the officials some leniency in determining what demonstrates control of the ball. Officials in hockey have some leeway in calling hooking: if it happens at center ice and it’s not a scoring play or it happens away from the puck, they’ll often let it go to keep play going.

I’m not what you’d call a spirited Lions supporter by any means, but my overall spirit for the NFL’s new brand of football was dampened last Sunday.

Football used to be a fun game to watch. But technology, instant replay, and the ever changing rules from year to year are ruining it for me.

It’s Thursday, and I’m still dispirited by what I saw last Sunday in Chicago.

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