If it were possible, NFL officiating proved a bigger story during the divisional round of playoff games than it did in the wild-card bracket. I've already unpacked the well-handled debut of the New England Patriots' four-man offensive line, and we've also passed along some initial thoughts on the game-changing reversal of Dez Bryant's late-game reception in Green Bay.
Now let's take a closer look at the Bryant play, the biggest decision in the Packers' 26- 21 victory Sunday over the Dallas Cowboys.
There were surely some groans in the NFL office when Bryant momentarily lost control of the ball near the Packers' goal line with 4 minutes, 42 seconds remaining. The applicable rule -- known either as the "process rule" or the "Calvin Johnson rule," depending on how your team was affected -- almost always generates exasperation from players, coaches and fans. Quite simply, what appears to pass the "eye test" of a catch is superseded by a rule designed to provide officials with clarity in determining possession in such cases.
Here's how Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 reads:
"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 throughout the process of contacting 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."
When you review what happened on the fateful play at Lambeau Field, you see that Bryant leaped over Packers cornerback Sam Shields to grab a 31-yard pass from quarterback Tony Romo. Bryant took two steps toward the goal line as he stumbled to the ground.
After he landed on the ground at the Packers' 1-yard line, the ball moved as it contacted the ground. Bryant rolled over, regained control after it had touched the ground and stood up. As referee Gene Steratore saw during the ensuing challenge, the play precisely mirrored the rule. By definition, the ball touched the ground before Bryant regained control. With depressing clarity, the pass was incomplete by NFL rules.
Some would argue that Bryant satisfied the league's definition of a catch based on Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3 of the rule book. According to the wording of that Article, a catch occurs when a player has secured control of the ball in his hands, he is inbounds and he has maintained "control of the ball long enough … to enable him to perform any act common to the game."
In this case, Bryant took two steps and lunged toward the goal line. Why was this not an "act common to the game"? Because, by NFL rules, Bryant did it while going to the ground. He never established himself as "upright." Steratore, in Sunday's official pool report, said: "In our judgment, [Bryant] … continued to fall and never had another act common to the game."
If this sounds unnecessarily complicated, you're both right and wrong. It's complicated because it doesn't make intuitive sense. Anyone who saw Johnson grab the ball in 2010, put two feet on the ground, and simply leave the ball on the ground to celebrate a touchdown knows that. But the rule is in place, according to people who would know, to provide a standard and simple way for officials to rule on possession when players are going to the ground.
The league's competition committee considered alternatives to the "process rule" during the spring of 2011 but ultimately recommended no changes. Why?
Presumably, the rule allows officials to use the same standard for every possession call when a player is going to the ground. The alternative, I suppose, is to ask an official to see accurately and consistently whether a player has full possession before he reaches the ground. Given how complicated and thick the NFL rule book already is, perhaps adding another layer of judgment for officials isn't ideal.
I contacted ESPN rules analyst Jim Daopoulos, a former NFL referee, to see if this intent made sense to him.
"I honestly can't give you a reason for why the rule is the way it is," he said. "I would guess the NFL is trying to simplify the situation as much as possible. Rather than trying to say, did this happen first or did that happen first, or did he get his foot down before the ball got loose, or whatever, they just wanted to take all of those fundamentals out of it and make a blanket statement: If he's going to the ground, you've got to keep the ball all the way through the process. I guess they think if you start looking at all those other parts, it's going to be very difficult for the guys on the field to make the call."
Update: Speaking Sunday night on the NFL Network, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino echoed that explanation.
"I think it's about consistency," he said, "and it's about, 'OK, if we make that a catch, then we've got to look at all these other plays where receivers go the ground, and where do we draw the line?' Currently we have a line where it's control with both feet and then do something with it. If we make this a catch, then where do we draw the line with a lot of other plays where it's clearly incomplete by rule. It can be become even more inconsistent."
Now that the play has impacted a highly competitive playoff game -- and foisted a loss on one of the league's marquee franchises, let's not forget -- I imagine we will hear more about this rule in the offseason. I don't have any answers today, but we'll let Daopoulos have the near-final word on the problem the league is facing here.
"I could go into a bar right now and ask 50 drunks whether it was a catch or not," he said. "And those 50 drunks, whether they like Dez Bryant or they hate him, and no matter if they know the rules, will all say it should be a catch."
Few of us know every NFL rule. Most of us, however, have a picture in our mind of how the game should be played and adjudicated. If a rule runs contrary to a mainstream of judgment, you would hope there is a way to bring it back in line. Stay tuned.