Dirty Laundry: Possession in the end zone

If you’re a cornerback, there are two effective ways to defend a pass. One is to prevent an airborne ball from reaching the receiver. The second is to separate the ball and the receiver before the play can be ruled a legal catch.

Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman took the latter route on a hotly-contested incomplete pass to Green Bay receiver Greg Jennings during the first quarter of last Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. Jennings caught the ball in the end zone with two feet in bounds, but Tillman’s last-second lunge forced Jennings to lose control as he fell to the ground.

Referee Mike Carey’s crew ruled the pass incomplete and upheld the decision upon review. The NFL office has stood behind the call, as reported here by Greg A. Bedard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and I agree that Carey made the right decision based on the wording of the rule. To me, the bigger issue is the inconsistency it creates in end zone officiating.

First, though, let’s look at what happened. About midway through the quarter, Jennings ran past Tillman and seemed to catch a 36-yard touchdown pass. Replays showed that Jennings secured the ball in his left arm and then stepped with his right foot, left foot and right foot (again) in the end zone. Only after that point did Tillman’s contact cause Jennings to drop the ball as both players collided with a security official.

Here is the rule that applies:

If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball after he touches the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.

I think you could make a reasonable argument that Jennings was no longer in the act of catching the pass by the time he started falling, that he had established possession before that point. But the bottom line is that Jennings did not “maintain control of the ball after he touch[ed] the ground,” giving Carey no choice but to rule the pass incomplete. Credit Tillman for an aggressive recovery after he was initially beat.

But if Jennings is required to maintain possession even after getting two feet in bounds, then this rule seems to violate the “time stops” element of plays in the end zone. Typically, what happens after a player establishes possession in the end zone is irrelevant.

I realize this rule means Jennings officially did not establish and maintain possession, but stay with me for a moment. How many times have you seen a running back awarded a touchdown after diving over the line of scrimmage, ball extended, and cross the plane before having it knocked away? When is the last time you saw a player called for a fumble after being hit in the end zone?

So for me, it doesn’t make intuitive sense to subject the Jennings play to continuation judgment beyond the establishment of possession. If a touchdown is awarded on a running play the moment the ball crosses the plane, then shouldn’t the same occur the moment a receiver secures a pass and gets two feet down -- regardless of what happens afterward?

OK, enough preaching for today. On to our updated Challenge Tracker:

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