Chicago 19 – Detroit 14

The NFL refs wasted no time getting into the national debate about bad calls (baseball) and stupid rules (golf) in sports seen on TV. The long-suffering Detroit Lions seemed to have pulled off a miraculous upset when their backup quarterback threw a Hail Mary in the game’s final minute that Calvin Johnson grabbed in the end zone. After wresting the ball from a defender, Johnson twisted and took three steps before falling to the ground, holding the ball outstretched in one hand. When the ball hit the ground, it squirted free. Johnson jumped up, celebrated with his amazed teammates and ran to the sidelines. But oops!, the play was reviewed by the officials, who ruled the pass incomplete because by not holding onto the ball when he hit the ground, Johnson had not completed “the process” of catching the pass!
The ruling was defensible under the rules, and I even felt queasy when I saw the play live, fearing such a decision. But what was more evident was the patent stupidity of the rule itself. As the TV announcers said, there was no question that Johnson “caught” the ball. He had total control of it, and was gripping it after the catch in one hand, in clear view of all. Moreover, he took three steps after the catch. If he hadn’t fallen, he could have taken one step less and tossed the ball to the ref and the touchdown would have stood. Why should the fact that he subsequently fell down change the outcome?
Compare this with the applicable rule when a runner reaches the end zone. All he has to do is control the ball while it penetrates the invisible goal line. If he drops it or it is knocked from his grasp one inch later, it is still a touchdown. If he lands on the ground as Johnson did and the ball comes loose, it is still a touchdown. Why is a receiver treated differently than a runner? In a non-end-zone situation, a runner also benefits from the rule that “the ground can’t cause a fumble,” yet that is exactly what happened with the pass to Johnson. If the same scenario had unfolded outside the end zone – i.e., if Johnson had caught the pass, twisted away from the defender, taken three steps while controlling the ball – and had fumbled after being hit, would the officials have called it an incomplete pass? No – that’s another inconsistency.
The announcers pleaded for an exception to the rule. That, of course, is not a viable solution. What makes more sense, instead, is simply changing the rule. If a receiver takes two steps after controlling the football – a judgment similar to the one routinely made when a receiver goes out of bounds – then the ground will no more cause an incompletion than it would a runner’s fumble.