When the Replay Booth Becomes Judge’s Chambers, We’ve All Lost
It should come as no surprise, especially after the conclusion of Sunday’s Packers-Cowboys game, that the NFL’s most famous referee, Ed Hochuli, is a partner in a law firm when he is not turning NFL games into his own personal gun show. Gene Steratore, the man who was tasked with making the regrettable (but correct) call after the replay review that all but doomed Dallas on Sunday, is in a different line of work. He owns Steratore Sanitary Supply, so he can sell you a trash bag, a mop, or industrial disinfectant, any of which might have helped to remove the stench from the end of Sunday’s game.
Steratore and the replay officials made the right call on Sunday, ruling that Dez Bryant failed to “complete the process of the catch,” while making an incredible, well, catch (what else can you call it?) that would have set the Cowboys up mere yards from the end zone to take the lead over the Packers.
I like to think of myself as a pretty smart guy. I know that I spend the better part of most Sundays from September through the first weekend in February watching the NFL (plus Thursday night, Monday night, and the occasional Saturday afternoon when the schedule-makers are really nice to me). Watching that play live, however, I had no idea what the right call was. At first, I thought that it was going to be ruled a touchdown – not merely a catch. Bryant seemed to control the ball, even as it may have come into contact with the turf, and he finally caught it cleanly in the end zone. What I did have, eventually, was a sinking feeling that the ruling that felt wrong would ultimately be the outcome that was right, by the book.
This is exactly what happened. Fox’s Mike Pereira had a prescient and understandable explanation for the ruling, but Pereira’s very presence on the broadcast team (and at times he is indispensable) is a sad commentary on the state of the NFL’s rulebook and the way in which the league’s justice is administered. The correct application of the rule on Sunday cost NFL fans a great play and a great finish to an excellent game. The replay system and the NFL rulebook, which can be incomprehensible to intelligent and dedicated fans, turned the conclusion of a game into a judicial proceeding.
I don’t have a great solution for this problem. Football is an incredibly complicated game, and many calls can be missed in real time, calls that benefit from the desire to “get it right,” as they say. Instant replay has a place in the game, and that place includes the pivotal play from Sunday’s game.
At the end of the day, this is probably a situation where the rule needs to be tweaked to give us better outcomes going forward. We saw it happen with the tuck rule, and the “process of the catch rule” might be next to go. It seemed that, and I could be misunderstanding the rule or the ruling, Bryant’s opportunity to “complete the process” ended when the ball popped up in the air. This, despite the fact that he clearly caught the ball (dare I say completed the process?) after that moment. This seems like a sensible starting point for change. Unfortunately, we’ll have to let Hochuli and the rest of the lawyers take it from there.
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