It’s a shame a playoff game that had everything will only be remembered for one controversial call. The NFL has already agreed with head referee Gene Steratore’s decision to overturn Dez Bryant’s acrobatic catch that would’ve given the Cowboys the ball near the Green Bay Packers’ goal line late in the fourth quarter.
"Bryant going to the ground. By rule he must hold onto it throughout entire process of contacting the ground," tweeted NFL head of officials Dean Blandino minutes after Sunday’s game. "He didn’t so it is incomplete."
It was fourth-and-two with just under five minutes left in the game when Tony Romo lofted a ball down the left sideline. Bryant leaped over Sam Shields to pluck the ball out of the air. He clearly took two steps after securing the ball and then the ball squirted lose after his left arm hit the ground. He gathered the ball and stood up to celebrate with teammates. Meanwhile, Packers coach Mike McCarthy quickly made the decision to throw the challenge flag. He’d already lost a challenge earlier in the game to make him 0-for-5 on the season. His losing streak would soon end.
The same "complete the process" rule that famously took away a touchdown catch by Calvin Johnson in 2010 was applied to Sunday’s play. It’s punitive rule that should’ve been corrected in the past, but the NFL rules committee has not found an appropriate solution. Here’s the wording of the applicable rule:
"If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass, he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete."
Bryant appeared to complete the catch before the ball was ever dislodged from his hand. But this was a letter-of-the-law decision. Steratore decided that Bryant’s two obvious steps didn’t represent what’s commonly referred to as a "football move."
This rule insults the intelligence of NFL fans in that it goes against common sense. If a player obviously secures a catch and then takes a couple of steps, it’s hard to then say the ground can actually cause an incompletion. The league has painted itself into a corner on this rule for no apparent reason. If it looks and smells like a catch, it probably is. The rules committee is telling us that our eyes are lying to us.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett took the high road in saying the game wasn’t about officiating, but he still had questions.
"That certainly was a big play in the ballgame. It looked to me like Dez had two feet down and made a move common to the game, which is a thing they talk about a lot," Garrett said.
"We’ve seen him a number of times this year reach out and score touchdowns making that same thing. It seemed like he had the ball at the end of the play as well, so all those things factor into it. But this wasn’t about officiating. We had 60 minutes to prove that we’re the better team, unfortunately we didn’t get it done today."
To his point, the Cowboys blew a huge opportunity late in the first half. Holding a 14-7 lead, the Cowboys had third-and-1 at the Packers’ 27-yard line. With 40 seconds remaining and two timeouts, Romo checked out of the original play. He then dropped the snap from Travis Frederick and made a desperation throw into the end zone. After a false start, Dan Bailey had a 50-yard field goal attempt partially blocked. The Packers quickly drove for a field goal to trim the deficit to 14-10 at the half.
It was a big swing in the game and it had a lot to do with the outcome. So did Aaron Rodgers’ remarkable performance in the second half.
Unfortunately, it was a questionable call that will be remembered for years to come. And the NFL only has itself to blame.
Would Bryant’s catch have been the game-winner? It’s something a bad rule prevented its fans from ever finding out.