With under five minutes to play and trailing 21-26, Tony Romo lined up in shotgun formation for a 4th and 2 that will forever go down as what could have been.
The Cowboys had to, at the very least, move the ball to the Packers 30 in order to keep its NFC Championship hopes alive. With the game on the line and the focus on him, Romo dropped back and faded ever so slightly to his left to avoid the impending corner back blitz.
The often criticized quarterback was on the verge of getting hit. Romo quickly let it fly down the left sideline to one of the best clutch receivers in the NFL, Dez Bryant. It was a throw that had a substantial amount of risk but one that sometimes you have to make to win a game.
Bryant, who was being faced with press coverage, had less than a step on his man as the ball was seemingly up for grabs. The pro-bowl wide receiver left the ground at the 9-yard line and hung in the air for what seemed like forever in real time.
Bryant came down with the ball at the 5-yard line and set in motion one of, if not, the most controversial endings to any NFL game let alone a playoff game.
The Dallas wide out proceeded to go to the ground with the ball in his possession. He fell forward and was initially ruled down at the half-yard line. After a challenge by Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, the officials ruled that “the receiver did not maintain possession throughout the entire process of the catch.”
That phrase in itself is more than problematic. It puts more onus on the officials to try and interpret more than they should ever have to. As an official myself, I know they have one of the toughest jobs in the world. They have more than enough to worry about without having to try and decipher the code that is “the entire process of the catch.”
Due to the overturned catch, the Cowboys turned the ball over on downs with four minutes remaining in the contest. I think it would be more than fair to say that the officials “interpretation” took what would have been six points off the board.
A preceding touchdown, from a half-yard out, would have given Dallas a 27-26 lead over Green Bay even if the Cowboys decided to go for two and failed following the score. I don’t think it is, in the least, a stretch to say Dallas would have punched it in from such a short distance.
After extensively reviewing the play, I can confirm that Bryant took three steps after initially possessing the ball even before he touched the ground. It is important to focus on the steps he takes after he completes the catch in the air.
Bryant’s third and final step is the part the officials should have been focusing on. I believe this is where they would have seen the “football move” term they like to throw around.
If you look closely, and believe me I realize it is somewhat subtle, Bryant digs his left foot into the ground to produce a tremendous amount of forward energy. He does this in order to lunge himself into the end zone and score the go-ahead touchdown.
Therefore, it is my understanding that if a “football move” is made then “possession has been established.” However, the NFL does not view Bryant’s third step, plant or lunge as a “football move.” That in itself is definitely something that should be addressed in the off-season to prevent something like this from ever happening again.
Bryant’s left elbow does hit the ground and the ball without a doubt becomes dislodged. This is where the real controversy stems from. NFL rules state that you have to maintain possession while going to the ground. I firmly believe that he did just that.
Under review, the ball squirts upwards and Bryant maintains possession throughout the “process of the catch.” Although part of the ball does make contact with the ground, Bryant has his hand and arm under the ball in order to legitimatize the catch.
The hypocrisy in this rule is overwhelming. If an offensive player catches a pass in the open field and makes a football move but loses the ball at any point after said move, the ball is considered a live fumble. At the same token the “ground cannot force a fumble and the player is considered down at the spot the lose ball occurred.” This disconnect must be reviewed to repair the integrity of the game.
Once again, the NFL was in the minority in believing that the ball made substantial contact with the ground and at that point the receiver dropped the ball. After a couple days had passed and I let the debacle settle in, I took to twitter.
“As a league you have to take a real hard look at yourself when the only ones that don’t recognize that @DezBryant made that catch is you.”
I feel like my tweet more than encompasses the feeling that the majority of fans and players held. Even Packers’ corner back Sam Shields, who was covering Bryant on the play, admitted that the 6′ 2” wide out made the play of the game and should have been rewarded possession.
I’m not saying the Packers could not have marched down the field and at least scored a field goal to either win the game or force overtime but, with only one timeout, Green Bay would have likely only had one decent crack at it.
Had this been the case, Dallas would have been headed to CenturyLink Field to take on Seattle and its highly touted 12th man instead. The Cowboys would be facing a Seahawks team they had readily dominated earlier in the season, 30-23, despite the final score.
A Super Bowl berth was by no means a guarantee, but it may have been Romo’s best chance to squash the negativity that has often downplayed his elite ability. The players should have decided that game as opposed to the officials.
That was the travesty in this all. The officials took the game right out of the Cowboys hands. They did not allow Dallas the opportunity to decide the game for itself.
More specifically, the NFL allowed too much room for interpretation on a play the officials initially called correctly on the field. An officials job is not to interpret the rules. It is to enforce them.
The catch passed the often dismissed eye test without a doubt. Too many times we over complicate things in sports. There is a reason the officials called the play on the field a catch. If it looks like a catch and feels like a catch, it probably is a catch.
This idea is by no means conclusive. Officials make mistakes. They are only human and although the NFL has the absolute best out there, mistakes still happen. That being said, instant replay is a tool that can assist and correcting human error.
Which leads me to an overlooked scenario that took place during the review. In order for a play to be overturned there has to be “100 percent conclusive evidence” to suggest that it should be.
It is hard to imagine that happened during the conclusion of the review. Since the play was ruled a catch on the field the officials needed “conclusive evidence” to support overturning the defining moment of the game. Unfortunately for Cowboys fans, the officials “found” the evidence they needed.
Ironically, there is nothing “100 percent conclusive” on any of the replays to suggest Bryant didn’t make that game-changing play. The only thing that was for certain is the NFL overstepped its bounds and created something that was, quite frankly, not there. They flat out ignored the visual evidence.
The initial call on the controversial review is crucial. A similar review took place earlier in the game. Just before halftime, Aaron Rodgers “completed” a pass for 12 yards to Randall Cobb. With 22 seconds left in the first half, Green Bay was now just inside Dallas territory.
The play was reviewed by the judges upstairs. It is important to remember that the officials initially ruled that Cobb caught the pass. As Cobb is falling to the ground to try and reel in the pass, the ball clearly hits the ground. It then pops up and hits Cobb in the chest before hitting the ground once more.
After review, the officials confirmed the call on the field. In their minds there was not enough evidence to overturn the call. A clear botch by the officials but nevertheless they stuck with what they initially called on the field.
How the officials didn’t see enough evidence to overturn the Cobb catch but did on the Bryant “non-catch” is beyond comprehensibility.
The officials and the NFL essentially applied the “Calvin Johnson rule” incorrectly. Although the two plays are similar they are by no means the same.
Certainly the argument could be made that Johnson made the catch, but he foolishly lets the ball go as he goes to the ground. The ball comes loose completely, and Johnson doesn’t maintained possession for the ball squirts out and rolls around on the ground.
The officials ruled Johnson’s catch as incomplete on the field and under review confirmed their call. Point being, there was not enough conclusive evidence to overturn the call and award Detroit the game-winning touchdown.
All of this made the Packers meltdown in Seattle that much more satisfying to watch. They stole an opportunity that the Cowboys rightfully deserved.