Dirty Laundry: Forever seeking answers

September, 29, 2012
9/29/12
7:00
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For me, last week was invigorating. Believe it or not, the only thing I root for is a good story. We most certainly got one at the conclusion of Monday night's game at CenturyLink Field.

It was also exhausting. Monday night bled into Tuesday morning and suddenly a new day of chaos was upon us.

And it was infuriating. Getting taken for a fool is no fun.

More than anything, however, the week was confusing.

It's been five days since the Green Bay Packers' 14-12 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. The Packers will play their next game in one day. But I'm still not sure we have an adequate and definitive answer for the most basic of questions from Monday night. Namely: Should Seahawks receiver Golden Tate have been credited with a 24-yard touchdown reception on the game's final play?

My initial reaction, along with many others, was that Packers safety M.D. Jennings intercepted the pass. I have maintained that position based on a subjective reading of the NFL rulebook and casebook, but I will admit the play was much closer than I once thought. As the week wore on, a number of well-researched and compelling analyses surfaced that suggested Tate had in fact won simultaneous possession of the Hail Mary pass with Jennings and thus deserved the touchdown he was awarded.

[+] EnlargeM.D. Jennings, Golden Tate, Charles Woodson, Jarrett Williams, Sam Shields, Jarrett Bush
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireM.D. Jennings looks to have control of the ball in this photo; NFL rules seem to say that this takes precedence over Golden Tate getting two feet on the ground with the ball in his grasp.
The league itself did not address the core question, saying only that it supported the decision not to overturn the decision on replay. An NFL spokesman, in fact, told my NFC West colleague Mike Sando that the league "could not determine whether [the call] was correct."

I won't hash through this issue point by point because I agree with what Sando wrote the other day: "All of us can reach the conclusion we want to reach if we're thorough enough in seeking evidence to support our claims."

What I want to do, however, is pass along the information I'm using to support an interception. But I also want to explain why I can't commit 100 percent to that conclusion.

Throughout the NFL rule book are examples that help flesh out the real-life implications of obtuse rules. One in particular appeared in the 2011 rule book, and has since moved to the 2012 casebook of supplemental explanations, and seems applicable in this case. Here is how A.R. 8.29, which is entitled "NOT A SIMULTANEOUS CATCH," reads:
First-and-10 on A20. B3 controls a pass in the air at the A40 before A2, who then also controls the ball before they land. As they land, A2 and B3 fall down to the ground. Ruling: B's ball, first-and-10 on A40. Not a simultaneous catch as B3 gains control first and retains control.

In this example, Jennings is "B3" and Tate is "A2." If you watch the replay, or view the photograph in this post, you see that Jennings was the first to get his hands on the ball. After that point, Tate secures his left hand on the ball as well and touches both feet on the ground before Jennings gets either foot down. He then wraps his right arm into the mix as well.

The argument for Tate having simultaneous possession rests in part on the fact that Jennings couldn't have achieved legal possession until both of his feet hit the ground. By that time, Tate had at least his left hand firmly on the ball.

We all associate possession with having two feet on the ground. But A.R. 8.29 seems to indicate that Jennings' ability to control the ball first, even if he was in the air, takes precedence. Eventually Tate lays claim as well, but as NFL rules state: "It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control."

But what exactly is "control?" That isn't adequately defined, and the NFL has a policy against offering further public interpretation of its rule book. Did Jennings need to maintain control of the ball with both hands throughout the play? Based on photos Sando posted on Facebook, you could argue that his left arm/hand lost contact during the scrum.

Could Tate have established control, and maintained it, with only his left hand, as if it was a one-handed catch? If that's the case, the call is murkier, if you argue that Jennings didn't maintain control throughout.

That's a snapshot, at least, for why this play will live in infamy. It clearly was the tipping point in the NFL's labor negotiations with its regular officials, but it's not 100 percent clear that it was even the wrong call.

This discussion, of course, shouldn't take away from the big picture. No matter how you saw the Jennings-Tate play, the Packers indisputably lost the game because of a bad call. Even the NFL admitted that officials should have called Tate for offensive pass interference before the ball arrived, a penalty that would have reversed the game-winning touchdown and given the Packers a 12-7 victory.

Many have noted that officials rarely if ever call pass interference on Hail Mary passes, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Whether it is ever called or not, it is still a rule that was blatantly violated on a game-deciding play. Now, on to our updated Penalty Tracker:

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