Roger Goodell likes the chains. The technology exists, obviously, to be more precise when determining whether a ball carrier made a first down in an NFL game. At every stadium, there is an armada of high-definition cameras, each loaded with more power than the computers that landed the first men on the moon. When there’s a spot close to a first down, two guys walk across the field with two sticks tied together.
But the commissioner and NFL love the drama. They want fans to see one of the guys stretching the chain, for them to hang on the reveal of whether it will pass the nose of the ball or not. There is so much to criticize Goodell for, and the notion of sticking to Stone Age tech for massive decisions for the sake of cheap thrills seems gauche. Honestly, though? He’s right.
The Dallas Cowboys can thank the NFL’s affinity for poles and chains rather than GPS and lasers for the survival of their season. Their 20-17 victory Sunday night over the Oakland Raiders kept their playoff hopes alive and provided the weirdest, wildest first-down measurement on record. On their game-winning drive, the Cowboys maintained possession at midfield only after referee Gene Steratore knelt down and found no space when he slipped a folded piece of paper between the nose of the football and the first down marker.
“Well,” Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones told reporters after, “I love any game that will allow you to just stick it in the pile and then come back and measure it with a piece of cigarette paper.”
The Cowboys would kick a field goal to take a three-point lead, and they would thwart the Raiders’ response only by another vanishingly remote margin. In the final minute, David Carr scrambled, dove for the end zone and stretched the ball toward the pylon, only to lose control when safety James Heath hit him. The ball rolled inside the pylon and out of bounds, resulting in a game-ending touchback.
By a matter of millimeters, the Cowboys stayed alive for the return of running back Ezekiel Elliott, who missed the last six games serving a suspension stemming from domestic assault accusations. They went 3-3 without Elliott, stabilizing once linebacker Sean Lee returned from injury. With Elliott healthy, the Cowboys would be a threat in the NFC playoffs. Now they just have to make it.
Dallas has a 10 percent shot to make the playoffs, per the New York Times’s playoff odds calculator. If the Cowboys can handle their end of the bargain and win their final two games — home for the Seahawks and at the Eagles, who could have the top seed clinched by then — those odds would bump up to 51 percent, a virtual coin flip.
The Cowboys would need the Lions to lose once and either the Panthers, Falcons or Saints to lose twice. The most realistic possible path for the Cowboys, assuming they beat the Seahawks and Eagles, would be the Falcons losing at the Saints in Week 16 and home against Carolina in the finale, while the Packers topple the Lions in Detroit in Week 17.
But they are alive Monday morning, and they can thank the funkiest measurement in league history. On fourth and 1 from the Dallas 39-yard line with five minutes left in the fourth quarter in 17-17 game, Coach Jason Garrett called for a quarterback sneak. Dak Prescott plunged into a mass of bodies. After officials spotted it, the ball nuzzled against the 40-yard line.
Out came the chains. The stretch of the front pole settled nothing. Players milled around the ball, hoping and politicking.
“One of my concerns was that it looked like the stick was kind of on an angle,” Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett said. “We thought that was working against us but eventually they straightened it out.”
“There was still space between the ball and the stick,” Raiders linebacker NoVarro Bowman said.
Steratore — incidentally the official who ruled against Dez Bryant’s infamous touchdown non-catch in the playoffs three years ago — knelt to inspect. He made no call. Instead, he pulled a folded paper from his pocket and slipped it between the ball and the marker. When the paper brushed both ball and marker, Steratore called it a first down.
It was not exactly an airtight call.
“I don’t want to get fined, okay?” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. “I’m not happy with the way things were done in a lot of different situations throughout the night. They did the best that they could. I had a different viewpoint. I saw air. It was pretty obvious.”
Chances are, Steratore’s explanation would not have mollified Del Rio. The paper, he said, did not decide the call for him.
“Didn’t use the card to make the final decision,” Steratore told a pool reporter. “The final decision was made visually. The card was used nothing more than a reaffirmation of what was visually done. My decision was visually done based on the look from the pole.”
Eight plays later, Dan Bailey kicked a field goal. The Cowboys held, only after another preposterously close play. Now Elliott comes back, and the Cowboys’ season maintained its intrigue.
It happened because a man in stripes failed, in his estimation but not unanimously, to slip a note card between a leather-encased sack of air and a plastic pole without resistance. Sometimes, you have to love football.
>>> Jerry Richardson announced he will sell the Carolina Panthers at the end of the season in the wake of allegations of workplace misconduct and the NFL’s launching of an investigation, Mark Maske writes. It is a momentous development. Richardson founded the team in 1995 and has been the only owner in franchise history. His influence has waned, but he remains one of the most significant figures in the league. Richardson’s downfall is the starkest example yet of how the cultural shift in revelations of alleged sexual harassment has seeped into the sports world.
>>> The Patriots beat the Steelers in an insane, emotional game, Mark Maske writes. The Patriots clinched the AFC East for the ninth straight year — an NFL record — and put themselves in position to have home-field advantage for the duration of the AFC playoffs. Tom Brady was magic, the definition of a catch was stretched, Antonio Brown was hurt and the Steelers were incensed.
On the game-sealing interception, Ben Roethlisberger said, he wanted to clock the ball, but coaches told him to run a play, Phil Perry writes. Either way, Roethlisberger’s pass — into a maze of defenders — was wildly foolish. The Patriots thrive on not beating themselves and waiting for their opponents to combust. In the biggest moment, after it seemed as though they had beaten the Patriots, the Steelers combusted.
>>> If anybody needed further proof of the NFL’s parity, there is this: The teams with the best point differentials this season are the Jaguars and Rams.
Jacksonville and Los Angeles — winners of three and four games last season — each won its 10th game Sunday and put an effective hammerlock on a division title. The Jaguars and Rams own playoff droughts of 10 and 13 years that are about to end. These were two of the worst franchises in the NFL for years. Now, they’re two of the best teams.
Their performances both marked them as scary playoff teams. The Rams obliterated the Seahawks in Seattle, 42-7, and running back Todd Gurley looked like the best player in the NFL in scoring four touchdowns. The Jaguars, meanwhile, are actually winning because of Blake Bortles and not despite him. In the last three weeks, Bortles has averaged 301 yards per game while throwing seven touchdowns and no interceptions.
>>> Marvin Lewis, the second-longest tenured head coach with one team in the NFL behind Bill Belichick, decided he will not return to the Bengals next season after 15 years. The Bengals went 6-9-1 last season and fell to 5-9 on Sunday with a blowout loss at Minnesota. Lewis turned the woebegone Bengals into a respectable franchise and frequent playoff team. But he never won a playoff game, and the Bengals are clearly headed in the wrong direction. It was time for a chance in Cincinnati.
Lewis’s decision caught the Bengals off guard, Jim Owczarski writes.
>>> Jimmy Garoppolo is turning into a star in San Francisco. The 49ers moved to 3-0 in games Garoppolo has started after he led a game-winning field goal drive in a 25-23 victory over Tennessee. He completed 31 of 43 passes for 381 yards and a touchdown. As a starter, Garoppolo has averaged 8.9 yards per attempt. Tom Brady entered Sunday leading the NFL at 8.6 yards per attempt.
>>> The Eagles won their first game without Carson Wentz and clinched a bye, but they didn’t play well enough in a 34-29 victory over the Giants, Zach Berman writes. “Can’t play like this and win in the postseason,” Doug Pederson said. Nick Foles threw four touchdown passes and no interceptions, but Philadelphia’s defense yielded 504 yards to the woeful Giants.