Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Dirty Laundry: Possession standards
By Kevin Seifert
Detroit's Calvin Johnson, left, and Green Bay's Greg Jennings both had apparent touchdowns negated because they didn't maintain possession.
With one eye closed, I peaked at the mailbag Wednesday morning. Guess what? You filled it with more than 1,000 notes laced with understandable anger about Calvin Johnson's touchdown-turned-incompletion at the end of the Detroit Lions' 19-14 loss Sunday at Soldier Field. Some of the comments reflected an incomplete understanding of NFL rules, others questioned the interpretation of the rule in question and some offered suggestions for correcting what clearly is a problem moving forward.
In our inaugural 2010 Dirty Laundry post, I'd like to address your anger briefly, acknowledge there is more to the issue than a rule that doesn't make sense and humbly propose my own home-cooked solution.
First things first. Your anger was totally justified and I understand why it was directed toward me. I wrote the initial post pointing out the rule used to uphold the call. But many of you complained about a headline on our NFL index page that suggested Lions fans "get over it." To be clear, that sentiment was over the top and didn't reflect my thoughts.
Secondly, many of you were frustrated because I suggested the call was accurate based on the wording of the rule. I still believe that to be the case, but I will acknowledge that officials have some subjective burden here in determining when the so-called "process of the catch" is complete. Many of you wondered how far officials could take this point, and I understand what you're saying.
Regardless of those details, the call will stand. The bigger question is how the NFL can avoid overturning touchdowns that clearly pass the "smell test."
We first touched on this issue last season when Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings lost a touchdown under similar circumstances. Here's what I think: One way or the other, the NFL needs to standardize its rules for possession in the end zone. If it can get to that point, I think we can solve this problem.
Consider a running play or a reception made at say, the 20-yard line. All the runner or receiver needs to do is move the ball across the white plane while maintaining possession in order to score. It doesn't matter if a defender swipes the ball away a nanosecond later, or if the ball carrier is tackled after crossing and subsequently fumbles. It's a touchdown every time.
That's different than what happens in the field of play, obviously. A ball carrier can lose the ball at any point before he is ruled down. But that distinction provides a jumping-off point for addressing the "process of the catch" issue. In short, the NFL should eliminate the process requirement -- that a receiver maintain possession even after coming down with two feet in bounds -- only for plays in the end zone. Anything that happens afterward should be moot, just as with the runner who dives across the white line just before a linebacker knocks the ball away.
I realize we're not comparing apples to apples here. A running back who dives across the line has already established possession. A receiver who is leaping for the ball in the end zone has not, and the intent of this rule is to ensure the same standard for a catch regardless of where it happens.
But that equanimity doesn't make intuitive sense to me. It opens a slippery slope of determining how long to extend the play in the end zone before it is ruled a catch. In Johnson's case, the rule gave officials the leeway to make an incomplete call because the ball touched the ground a moment after he landed with both feet in bounds and the ball firmly in his grip.
So what would be the downside of standardizing a separate set of rules for possession in the end zone? The new rule would require receivers to land in the end zone with possession and two feet in bounds. If they do, it's a touchdown regardless of what happens next, just as with the ball carrier who breaks the plane and then loses the ball.
Defenders would lose the opportunity to break up the pass play, one that they would otherwise have on a pass to the 20-yard line. But I'd rather see that inequality than one that requires officials essentially to wait and see if a receiver loses possession after establishing it on a catch in the end zone.
That's just my two cents to add to the mix. As always, we'll close with our weekly NFC North Challenge Tracker, which looks at each coach's successes and failures in challenging officials' calls. In Week 1, Minnesota's Brad Childress was the only coach to throw the red flag.