Jesse James appears to have been robbed. (Don Wright / Associated Press)

Deep into December, the NFL talk on Monday mornings should be about great plays, clutch performances and playoff permutations. Instead, a piece of paper, the unending mystery of the catch rule and the arrival of #MeToo for an owner are taking top billing.

Somehow, it’s fitting for a season that plenty of people can’t wait to see end.

In Oakland, the Cowboys were facing fourth-and-1 when Dak Prescott ran a quarterback keeper that looked for all the world like a first down. But who are you gonna believe — your lyin’ eyes or an index card produced by referee Gene Steratore? Believe the card. Hey, it’s a game of millimeters. Or something.

“This will live in infamy,” NBC’s Al Michaels said.

Perhaps. It left Raiders Coach Jack Del Rio saying he’d never seen anything like that.

“Never. Never seen air like that and it somehow got turned into a first down,” he said. “The air between the ball and the stick. That’s sure short and it goes the other way. Period.”

Three plays later, Prescott’s pass to Dez Bryant set up the go-ahead field goal and the Cowboys were 20-17 winners.

But nothing could overshadow the catch rule, which reared its ugly head again in the best game of the season, the one between the Patriots and Steelers. Move over, Calvin Johnson and Bryant, two men who will forever be linked to the debate over just what is a catch. Make room for Jesse James. After the Patriots scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion for a three-point lead with 56 seconds left, the Steelers tore off down the field on two plays, the latter of which looked to your lyin’ eyes and mine like a touchdown as James stretched toward the end zone after hauling in a 10-yard pass with 28 seconds remaining. Alas. James was robbed as the ball Weebled. Or wobbled. One of the two.

“In order to have a completed pass, a receiver must survive going to the ground,” referee Tony Corrente said in a rather terrifying description. “In this case, he had control of the football but he was going to the ground. As he hit the ground, the ball began to roll and rotate and the ball hit the ground and that’s the end of it at that point. … He lost complete control of the football. That was the ruling out of replay.”

“James is going to the ground as he reaches the goal line,” Al Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, said in a video. “And that’s the key here: He is going to the ground. By rule, to complete the process of the catch he must survive the ground. And by that, we mean he must maintain control of the football. … He does put the ball over the goal line extended. Once he gets there, he loses control of the football and then the ball hits the ground. We can see … the ball touches the ground. … Therefore, the ruling on the field of a touchdown was changed to an incomplete pass.”

All of which leaves everyone to grapple with a rule that was called correctly, but seems like a dumb rule.

“I was just trying to watch it to see what happened,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “Once I thought about it that way, no. I know it’s always hard to know when you hit the ground — catch, no catch. But when you see it, it was kind of like his hands weren’t under it. Obviously I’m a little biased out there.”

Got it. So, rather than trying for a game-tying field goal, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted in the end zone on a fake-spike play with five seconds left.


Damiere Byrd’s cheeky play was a touchdown. (Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

Thank God for both incidents, though, because otherwise we might be debating butt cheeks and whether the Panthers’ Damiere Byrd had the right component of his buttocks inbounds when he landed derriere-first in the end zone against the Packers. “I’m looking at the cheeks,” said Mike Pereira, the former head of officiating for the NFL and now a Fox analyst. “Does the left cheek hit first?” Both cheeks were in bounds and that was the end of that. Tender mercies.

Alas, there are none for Jerry Richardson, the owner of the Panthers. No sooner did Sports Illustrated drop a story filled with troubling allegations of the sort that have cost many men their jobs in the #MeToo era, than the team announced that it would be sold at the end of the season. According to Sports Illustrated’s report, at least four former team employees received significant financial settlements accompanied by nondisclosure agreements over inappropriate behavior and comments in the workplace by Richardson. In addition to sexually suggestive remarks and acts, Richardson is alleged to have used a racial slur about a scout who is African American.

Richardson may hope that his swift decision to sell will avert the league’s intention to investigate, but that seems highly unlikely. Not in the #MeToo era that has now arrived for the league, executives and players.

Maybe next weekend is when we’ll actually be talking about football.

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The NFL’s notorious catch rule rears its ugly head again

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