By Scott Kacsmar
Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)
With Captain Comeback, we like to look at the close finishes the NFL provides every week, and also do a good share of proving when the facts are being distorted by battles over semantics.
The much-publicized ending in the Green Bay at Seattle game from Monday Night Football is a classic example of both. It was one of the most exciting finishes ever, and the ending has been spoiled by controversy from the moment it happened as people fight over what the words “control”, “possession”, and “catch” mean in NFL terms.
The ending has hit mainstream news outside of the realm of sports, and many sources – most of which are not even qualified to make the statement – refer to it as the “worst call in NFL history.” That might be true if your knowledge of NFL history starts in 2012.
Enough already. The biggest travesty in the NFL this week comes from all the fans and media that have let a perfect storm of events shape the biggest overreaction ever to a call that was right, and a touchdown that was legitimate.
When you take your emotions out of it, and only study the facts, then there is no denying the replacement referees got the ending right, and the NFL’s statement was correct in upholding the call.
Analyzing the Touchdown
Want the short or long version? You know you are getting the long anyway, but if you need a summary, then here it goes.
The short version: Golden Tate had the first control of the ball, catching it with his left hand, which never loses control of the ball throughout the entire process of the play. His two feet hit the ground to establish possession before M.D. Jennings establishes possession. Tate’s butt hits the ground, and at this point, he still has control, possession and is in the end zone for a good touchdown. Tate pushed off for an uncalled offensive pass interference that would have ended the game, but this is irrelevant when history shows no referee in football will make such a call on a Hail Mary. Seattle’s win is legit.
The long version will now go through the whole catch, and the key is to look at a frame-by-frame analysis.
While slow-motion replays are sexier for TV, you have to take a frame-by-frame approach to get evidence of what really happens. No matter how many replays you watch from whatever angles you find, it is the exact frames at the key moments that will tell you what really happened, and why this is a touchdown.
First, everyone can agree that this was a pass in the end zone, with both players always inbounds, and the ball never hits the ground. That means it has to be either ruled a touchdown or an interception. That is not up for debate by anyone.
Next, we need to define control, possession and a catch, as these have been mixed up quite a bit this week. Possession only occurs when a catch is completed, and having control is a key element of making a catch.
The following is from the NFL’s statement on what defines a catch as stated in Rule 8, Section 1.
“A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:
(a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
(b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
(c) maintains control of the ball long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.).”
If the player is going to the ground like they were in this play, then control must be maintained throughout the process for the catch to count. That did happen, and all the wrestling for the ball that took place was irrelevant as the touchdown was already good.
The following is the NFL’s rule for a simultaneous catch, as there apparently is no rule for simultaneous possession, which many have tried to talk about for this play.
Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 5 states:
“Simultaneous Catch. If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control. If the ball is muffed after simultaneous touching by two such players, all the players of the passing team become eligible to catch the loose ball.”
Technically, there probably never is a true simultaneous catch in the NFL, as someone will always touch the ball first (size of ball and hands dictate as much), as Tate did here. Hell, this call was probably still way closer than Bret Hart and Lex Luger simultaneously going over the top rope in the 1994 Royal Rumble. Now if you want to talk about a rip-off that you had to pay for…
Step One: Control
Anyways, the very first frame shows the most important element that so many have missed: Golden Tate controls the ball before Jennings.
This video from another analysis does a good job of showing the zoomed-in view, and Tate gets his left hand in between Jennings and makes the one-handed catch before Jennings closes his hands around the ball. Here is a cap from that video.
Hardly the best quality, but you can see Jennings’ helmet and space between his hands and the ball as Tate catches it first. Here are the first four frames to show the point of first contact with the ball (click here for huge image).
In the first frame the ball has yet to arrive. It does in the second, and it is stopped by Tate’s left hand with Jennings yet to touch it. The ball does not even move in the third and fourth frames, as Tate’s hand is holding it up the whole time as Jennings wraps his two hands around it.
Tate controls the ball with his left hand throughout the whole play. He controlled the ball even before Jennings did, because he touched it first as we have already seen. He has control, and you do not need two hands or arms for control. It is ridiculous how people are ignoring the fact that one-handed catches are made all the time.
In the 2010 AFC Divisional playoffs, Antonio Brown had a huge catch on a 3rd and 19 late in the game. He never got two hands on the ball, as you can see in the picture.
Instead, Brown pins the ball to his helmet a la David Tyree, and only keeps his right hand on it as he goes out of bounds on the play. Brown never established possession with both hands or arms, but he had control and was running in bounds before he stepped out. It was a good catch.
In 2006 Reggie Wayne made a great one-handed catch against the Eagles. He went out of bounds, never once put his second hand or arm on the ball, and it was good for 38 yards. The Eagles challenged, but the play was upheld.
Two years later Wayne had the game-winning touchdown to cap a comeback in Houston. Check the 3:14 mark here, and you can see Wayne initially get two hands on the ball while in the air, but quickly has his left hand leave the ball before hitting the ground. With the ball still firmly controlled in only his right hand, Wayne gets down in bounds just in time despite never gaining possession with two hands or arms. Touchdown, Colts.
Do we need more Indianapolis highlights? Also from a prime time game, how about Pierre Garcon’s one-handed grab against Washington in 2010? As Cris Collinsworth notes, the ball just stuck in his hand. Garcon never even had to use his second arm for a good catch.
None of these plays were controversial, a few of them did come in crucial situations, and they were all valid catches.
Some people think Tate moving his right hand off of Jennings for a moment before moving it back for the ball means he lost control. This is not true, as we have seen examples of plays where a player can move their hand off the ball, but it is fine as long as they still maintain control the whole time. Tate always had control with his left hand.
Then there is the fallacy of “having more control”, or the idea that two hands are better than one in this situation. That is not in the rule book, and not how any officials call the play.
If you can control the ball with your one hand and complete the process to the ground, like Tate and countless others before him did, then it is a good catch. Tate always had control with that left hand.
Step Two: Possession
A player in mid-air does not have possession. You must get two feet down.
As gravity brings Tate and Jennings down, Tate hits the ground first with both feet and his left hand on the ball as seen below.
You can see Jennings is still clearly off the ground, meaning he has yet to have possession while Tate already does. If simultaneous possession is even a real thing, then Tate would have beaten Jennings to it, actually negating the simultaneous call.
Tate then wraps his right hand around the ball while still having the left on it, and this also happens before Jennings establishes possession with his two feet on the ground.
Tate eventually parks his butt on the ground still with two hands on the ball, and at that point, it practically happens simultaneously with Jennings finally getting his second foot on the ground, as seen in this picture.
But Tate already has him beat twice: first to control, and now to possession. With both players on the ground and fighting over the ball, the touchdown had already been scored as the requirements for a catch were met in the end zone. Showing that popular image of Jennings trying to rip it away seconds later is irrelevant.
The fact that Jennings had to exert so much effort to even try and rip the ball away also speaks to the grip Tate had on the ball with his left hand. If Jennings was in such obvious possession as some believe, then why would he not have been able to easily get out with the ball?
It is because Tate always had that control with the left hand. A Seattle station (KCPQ) filmed a reverse-end zone angle of the play, and you can see that video here.
Steve Gallo did his own work on the play, and using this reverse angle from KCPQ, he was able to put together this picture.
Tate has his left hand on the ball, and his right forearm on the ball. Jennings’ left hand is actually on Tate and not the ball at this point.
In the end, expecting any referee to see a clear interception on this play is foolish. It was so close, and it takes a frame-by-frame analysis to even see who actually had control first.
The key part to the whole play is Tate making that initial contact with the left hand, controlling the ball in it throughout the whole process of going to the ground. He established possession before Jennings as well, and once he hit that ground with his arse, this thing was a good touchdown.
There is no way you could review this play and determine it was not a catch, so the correct ruling on the field of touchdown stood. Had the initial ruling been an interception, then they would have had to go to the frame-by-frame to reach the same conclusion here, which does not seem like something that’s actually used if you go by what we see on TV.
But it provides the undeniable evidence you need to see this was a touchdown thanks to that left hand of Tate.
Offensive Pass Interference
Having justified the touchdown catch, it is blatantly obvious that Tate pushed off for an offensive pass interference that was not called. The NFL admitted this one, and that call would have won the game for Green Bay right there.
But, there is an unwritten rule that you do not call pass interference on a Hail Mary at any level of football, whether you are a real ref or a replacement. It just does not happen.
NFL Network research said the last 87 times a team has tried a Hail Mary at the end of the game, not a single one of them were flagged for offensive pass interference. The Browns (go figure) were penalized for defensive pass interference in 2009, but never the offense.
Even calling DPI is frowned upon. When the Jaguars pulled off the Hail Mary over Houston in 2010, you can clearly see Mike Sims-Walker is knocked down with the ball in the air, and there was no flag for DPI.
In the end, that’s really how it should be. If you were to call these plays straight up, you would have a lot of offsetting fouls as the sea of bodies initiate a lot of contact on these plays. One could easily argue Seattle’s other receiver in the play was interfered with.
Hoping for offensive pass interference on a Hail Mary is like hoping for the president to bring all the troops home at once. It will not happen. Forget about it.
Green Bay should have knocked the ball down as there was no trailing receiver a la Detroit the day before. However, that would have been pretty hard given how good of a grip Golden Tate got on that ball.
Hopefully history will acknowledge his effort better than the reaction we have seen this week.
The Perfect Storm for Overreaction
After clear evidence and support from the NFL for why the play was ruled a touchdown, why is there so much complaining over the call? The circumstances of the moment created a perfect storm for a record amount of mass whining.
1. The game was in prime time.
This was not your run-of-the-mill 1 p.m. game with FOX’s fifth-best announcing crew getting lost in the early-game shuffle. Millions of people were able to watch the only game on TV. This was not the Detroit at Chicago game from Week 1 in 2010 with the Calvin Johnson play. More people watched this live.
2. The Green Bay Packers are one of the league’s flagship franchises and they were the losing team.
Not to pick on some of the usual suspects, but if this was a game where St. Louis or Jacksonville lost, then the outcry would not be anywhere near as loud or sustained. But because it was the Packers, 15-1 last year, league MVP at quarterback, owned by the people, that all strengthened the buzz.
Combining the first two factors, look at the 2001 “Bottle-gate” game between Jacksonville and Cleveland (yes, Browns involved again). After spiking the ball, the replay officials went back and reviewed the previous fourth-down play by the Browns, and overturned the call to an incompletion even though another play had been run.
Allegedly the ref was buzzed before the spike to review it, but it remains a controversial ending that went against the home team, which led to enraged fans throwing bottles at players and officials.
However, we do not recall George W. Bush releasing a statement on this outcome…
3. The replacement referees are scapegoats and easy targets for criticism of officiating.
Credit to the person who first came up with the substitute teacher analogy, but that really is how everyone treated these guys for 48 games. They showed them no respect in a difficult situation where the replacements clearly were going to do an inferior job, but did the best they could.
It was a week earlier in Atlanta when ESPN’s Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden spent much of the broadcast berating the officials, and we heard a good share of it again on NBC on Sunday night with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth calling the Patriots/Ravens game. That game even ended with Bill Belichick grabbing at an official, drawing a $50,000 fine.
Everything was building up to a boiling point, and Monday night finally provided that.
4. The fourth quarter was filled with questionable-to-poor calls on both teams.
With the criticism getting stronger by each game this season, things were really about to explode after a lot of suspect calls in the fourth quarter in regards to pass interference, unnecessary roughness and roughing the passer.
5. ESPN announcers Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden fueled the fire for viewers.
Any announcing crew can slant the perception of a game, as they provide the basis of audio commentary for millions of the viewers.
If this call was so obviously an interception in live action like any swindler would contend, then why did the experienced play-by-play man Tirico make the following call?
The game’s final play is a Wilson lob to the end zone, which is…fought for by Tate with Jennings! Simultaneous, who has it? Who will they give it to? TOUCHDOWN!
Long before any signal from the refs, Tirico referenced “simultaneous”, which everyone knows goes to the offense. Minutes later Tirico would say it looked like a Jennings interception, but he obviously was not sure live, just as any person, replacement ref or real ref on the spot would be unable to decide in real time.
Gruden chimed in with the following:
They should give Green Bay the game is what they should do. No way Green Bay should fly 6,000 miles home after losing a game like this. That’s what instant replay’s for. I don’t like the way this game finished. I have a bad taste in my mouth.
Gruden would also cite the “terrible pass interference call” that went against Green Bay earlier. However, he made no mention of the terrible pass interference call on Kam Chancellor that extended Green Bay’s go-ahead touchdown drive.
Chancellor clearly made a greatly-timed play by knocking the ball down with his right hand, while never obstructing Jermichael Finley with his left. Instead of a 4th-and-2 situation and likely punt for Green Bay, the drive continued and they scored a touchdown.
Tirico jumped back in with “it feels like Jennings has more of the ball than Tate does”, which again means absolutely nothing, and yet some people think it does.
6. Social media is bigger and more dangerous than ever.
When the beloved Ed Hochuli blew the Jay Cutler fumble which would have clinched the game for San Diego in 2008, Twitter was not anywhere near as popular as it is today. On Monday night, millions of people were able to react to the call together – simultaneously, you could say – and instantly share misleading images such as this one on Twitter that shows the scrum well after the play is over.
Another famous picture was taking a still image of one ref signaling the touchdown and the other having his arms as incomplete, but matching that with the video you can see it is misleading. The other ref was making the motion to stop the clock, even though there was no time left. He never made the incomplete signal, nor did he ever complete the touchback signal, which would have been the case on an interception in the end zone.
Green Bay guard T.J. Lang, part of the offensive line that allowed eight sacks in the first half, set some Twitter record for the most retweets by f-bombing the league after the game. Not sure any of his tweets referenced how poor he and his offense played in the game.
With all the extra coverage today from ESPN and the NFL Network, the media blitz is stronger than ever and blew up the replacement ref controversy, ultimately using this ending to their advantage.
Moving On (Can We?)
In the end, the massive overreaction played a critical role in ending the referee strike this week.
That is about the only good thing that came of this. So lost in the madness is how well Seattle played defensively, how much Green Bay struggled, and for most people, lost was the great effort by Tate on this game-winning play.
The whole fiasco was still quite shameful, and we will end by dishing some of that out.
Shame on anyone claiming this is the worst call in NFL history. You clearly have some research to do. It is not even the worst call in a game involving the Seahawks or Packers. Vinny Testaverde says hello, for starters.
Shame on the media outlets not focusing on the frame-by-frame look at the play and instead showing the same old angles and repeating the same old rubbish that does not even apply. Allegedly Steve Young on ESPN actually defined a catch as having the ball in your chest. These are experts?
Shame on the select members of the Green Bay Packers for whining about the call rather than owning up to their poor performance. We already mentioned in Captain Comeback this week the other chances the Packers had to avoid this situation.
Shame on anyone who thinks the Packers should be protesting the result with a series of kneel downs this Sunday against New Orleans. Should the Giants have refused to take the field again during last year’s playoff game when Greg Jennings clearly fumbled, and the referees still blew the call and Green Bay scored a touchdown? What about the infamous roughing-the-passer call for a blow to the head that never happened that led to their other touchdown?
That’s right. A “real referee” called that in a big game. You know what else happened that day? Hakeem Nicks caught a Hail Mary touchdown in nearly the same spot as Tate. Looks like the Packers need to work on their Hail Mary defense.
Shame on anyone thinking the last touchdown was a fraud while ignoring how Green Bay had the lead in the first place. That Kam Chancellor pass interference on third down was not a penalty. At least Tate had enough for a touchdown.
Shame on Golden Tate for not immediately owning up to the push off, and instead going with the “I don’t know what you’re talking about” response.
Shame on anyway who thinks any referee would call offensive pass interference on a Hail Mary at the end of the game.
Shame on anyone thinking the real referees would have “got it right” when the replacements already did.
Shame on a ni—never mind. That was a Wu-Tang Clan song. Now can we get on with the regularly scheduled season of real referees bringing the next ruckus with a bad call in the clutch?
Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.