It seems like a reasonable request. At a time when we have self-driving cars, one-hour drone delivery and a probe taking pictures of Pluto, there must be a way for the NFL to know if and when a football crosses the goal line. Alas, as we've discussed before, there is no technologically obvious path at the moment.
So for now, at least, plays like the one Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel made Sunday afternoon will stand as glitches in the league's officiating and replay system. A reasonable person could guess that Manziel extended the ball over the plane at the end of a wild 11-yard run against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but no camera angle offered a definitive look and the company that adjudicates such plays in the English Premier League says it can't help.
Let's back up for a moment.
Late in the third quarter at Heinz Field, referee Ronald Torbert's crew ruled that Steelers defensive lineman Cam Thomas tackled Manziel at the 1-yard line. The Browns challenged, but the CBS broadcast provided only two angles.
One was from behind, offering an invalid perspective. The other camera appeared to be set on the near goal line, but Steelers safety Will Allen blocked a clear view of the ball. There were no Pylon Cams in use; CBS uses them only at select Thursday Night Football games. (ESPN also installs them for Monday Night Football.)
With no definitive angle to reverse the call, the ruling stood. Manziel threw an interception four plays later, and the Steelers went on to a 30-9 victory.
What can be done to improve what seems an uncomplicated situation? At the moment, not much.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick pushed the NFL last spring to install permanent cameras on the goal line, end line and sideline to ensure the best possible angles for key replays. The league took the matter under review, but as we noted at the time, the project would be expensive and variations in sight lines between stadiums would make it inconsistent by venue and less than 100 percent dependable overall.
If you've watched Premier League soccer in the past two seasons, you might wonder why its triangulation technology couldn't be applied to the NFL. (It is also used in tennis and cricket, among other sports.) I reached out recently to the company that administers it, but a spokesman for Hawk-Eye said that the number of bodies usually surrounding a football at the goal line would render its system useless too often. (Hawk-Eye requires at least 25 percent of the ball to be clearly visible throughout the play for it to register.)
For now, at least, accurate goal-line replay is an easy request without a simple solution.
"Become a runner"?
More than halfway through the season, the NFL's offseason attempt to clarify its definition of a catch has not registered. After monitoring social media during incomplete passes Sunday -- to New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Arizona Cardinals tight end Daniel Fells -- it's clear that "becoming a runner" doesn't make any more sense to fans than requiring "a football move" did in previous years.
After replay review, Beckham was ruled to have dropped a pass that was in his hands in the air and then for a moment after both feet touched the ground in the end zone. And the pass to Fells was confirmed to be incomplete even after the ball settled into his hands and he took two steps upfield. Only after those steps did Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner knock it out of Fells' hands.
Here is what the NFL rulebook now says about these plays:
"To gain possession of a loose ball that has been caught, intercepted, or recovered, a player must have complete control of the ball and have both feet or any other part of his body, other than his hands, completely on the ground inbounds, and then maintain control of the ball until he has clearly become a runner. A player becomes a runner when he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent. If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any other part of his body to the ground, there is no possession. This rule applies in the field of play and in the end zone."
In other words, the standard for an NFL catch isn't simply to have two feet on the ground with the ball under control. The receiver must maintain possession for several counts afterward, during which time he could conceivably ward off a tackler.
That portion of the rule has proved exceedingly difficult for game officials to see in many circumstances, forcing these plays to replay far too often. Through Sunday night's games, replay officials had been asked to look at 54 completed passes -- 18 more than any other play. They have overturned 51.9 percent of those challenges; the success rate for all other challenges is a combined 40 percent.
Referee tendencies matter
Every week, ESPN Stats & Information helps me replicate an exercise that takes place in most NFL facilities: filtering penalty type and frequency for players and officiating crews. You might be surprised at how often this data can help explain what seem to be random or unique events.
Part of the issue, of course, was Robinson: His eight holding penalties this season, including those that were declined or offset, have him tied with Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce for the league lead. But it's also worth noting that referee Jeff Triplette's crew entered Week 10 having called the NFL's second-most offensive holding penalties (35). You get Robinson together with Triplette and, well, that's when the magic begins.
Meanwhile, the Browns received four defensive pass interference penalties, for a total of 141 yards lost, against the Steelers. Both were exceptional totals. The yardage was the most for one team in a game in the past 15 years, and the number of penalties was tied for the most over that period.
Some of the credit or blame can go to Torbert, whose crew entered the week with the NFL's second-most defensive pass interference calls at 13.
Finally, it was a surprise to see the Buffalo Bills escape Thursday night's game against the New York Jets with just five penalties. They entered the game with an NFL-leading average of 12.9 penalties per game, having registered in double digits in six games and never less than eight in any of them.
The total might make a bit more sense when you know that referee Brad Allen's crew entered the game with the league's third-lowest average of penalties called per game. Allen's average of 15 was 27.9 percent lower per game than the league leader at the time, Jerome Boger (20.8).