MINNEAPOLIS — It was another season with “What’s a catch?” intrigue in the NFL, so much so that Commissioner Roger Goodell said last week he wants the league’s rulemakers to start from scratch this offseason in rewriting the now-infamous, often-confounding catch rule.
So it was only natural that four days after Goodell made that proclamation at his annual state-of-the-league address, the season’s biggest game included two significant instant replay reviews of catches that played major roles in determining the outcome.
Fortunately for the Philadelphia Eagles, both rulings went in their favor, upholding two touchdowns as they beat the New England Patriots, 41-33, in a highly entertaining Super Bowl LII here Sunday night.
Just as fortunately for the NFL, both rulings were correct, regardless of what analyst Cris Collinsworth said during the NBC broadcast or what Patriots fans may have thought.
Tight end Zach Ertz’s go-ahead touchdown for the Eagles with a little more than two minutes to play was followed by the replay review that comes after any scoring play. There was some reason for the Eagles to be wary, given that Ertz lunged for the end zone at the end of the play and held out the football, which hit the turf and came free from Ertz’s grasp.
Was this another case in which the Calvin Johnson rule — the dreaded requirement that a player who goes to the ground while in the process of making a catch maintains control of the football while on the turf to be awarded a legal catch — would come into play? Was this a reenactment of Dez Bryant’s notorious non-catch during the NFC playoffs a few years ago? Or the non-catch by the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Jesse James that pretty much decided the outcome of their loss to the Patriots in December which, in turn, all but decided the top seed in the AFC playoffs?
Nope. And here’s why: Ertz didn’t go to the ground while making the catch. He made the catch, took a few steps and became, under the rules, a runner. So once he got the football across the goal line, it was a touchdown. Whatever happened thereafter didn’t matter. (Of course, Bryant basically became a runner himself. But there’s no righting that wrong.)
“You can’t really worry about it because at the end of the day, it’s a weird rule,” Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor said. “But, like, the guy catches a slant … takes it two steps and then on his own will dives in to score. It’s a touchdown. It’s obvious.”
Since when did that mean anything?
This time, apparently.
“Control, two feet, on his feet turned upfield, he is then a runner,” former NFL officiating czar Mike Pereira wrote on Twitter. “That is a clear touchdown. Surprised it took so long” to uphold.
Dean Blandino, who had that job after Pereira and before current occupant Al Riveron, agreed, writing on Twitter: “He had the ball long enough to be a runner and then went to the ground. Call should stand.”
Pereira and Blandino have not been anything close to a rubber-stamping rooting section this season for Riveron, who became the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating after Blandino left the league to join Pereira as a rules analyst for Fox. That change came at a difficult time for the NFL’s officiating department, given that owners decided last March to give Blandino more power by centralizing replay and having rulings be made by those in the league office in consultation with the on-field referee, not vice versa.
That power passed to Riveron when Blandino left, and it was a difficult first season. He overturned some on-field calls that probably shouldn’t have been overturned, drawing the ire of several teams and prompting public criticism by Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula of the current replay system. But on Sunday, Riveron and the league got it right.
“They called it a catch, three feet down and a football move,” Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola said of Ertz’s touchdown. “I call it a catch.”
Riveron and Russell Yurk, the league’s senior vice president of instant replay and administration, had a tougher call on a third-quarter touchdown catch by Eagles running back Corey Clement.
Clement appeared to have made a clean catch and gotten both feet in bounds before going out of the end zone. But on replay, there seemed to be a slight bobble of the football, calling into question whether his toe might have been on the line on his third step after initially grabbing the football. Collinsworth, on the telecast, predicted that the on-field ruling of a touchdown would be reversed.
This was more of a replay issue than a catch-rule issue, really. Was there enough there for a reversal? One of Riveron’s biggest problems earlier in the season, it seemed, was overturning on-field rulings without clear-cut replay evidence to do so. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. Replay is supposed to be about correcting obvious officiating mistakes, not re-officiating the game. In this case, Riveron did the right thing, and referee Gene Steratore announced that the touchdown ruling made on the field would stand.
“I agree,” Pereira wrote on Twitter after the ruling. “It was close but the initial ruling dictated. Good for Riveron/Yurk to stay with the standard that it [was] not obvious that the call was wrong. Slight movement of the ball and slight bobble but slight is not enough to overturn.”
Blandino wrote: “Issue is control. Looks like he has it initially and gets both feet down in bounds. There is some movement of the ball, but don’t think enough to say loss of control. Call should stand.”
It remains to be seen if the NFL’s competition committee will be able to overhaul the catch rule during the upcoming offseason and come up with a common-sense approach as Goodell has ordered. Goodell said Wednesday that he wants the process to work, in effect, in reverse. The league knows what it wants a catch to be, Goodell said, and now it wants a rule that reflects that.
“From our standpoint, I think I would like to start back, instead of adding to the rule or subtracting [from] the rule, start over again and look at the rule fundamentally from the start because I think when you add or subtract, then it still leads to confusion,” Goodell said.
He also said Wednesday: “I’m not here to tell you there won’t be controversy. But I believe we can get to a much better place.”
Sunday night’s developments were, for a change, a step in the right direction.