The Baltimore Ravens didn’t beat the Bengals Sunday. They survived, holding on to dear life to win the game by seven despite enjoying a 17-point cushion in the fourth quarter. Despite most prognosticators giving the Bengals no chance, the game wasn’t decided until Andy Dalton was sacked of fourth-and-goal with 33 seconds remaining.
The topic garnering most of the post-game reflection isn’t the performance of the rookie (which was spectacular notwithstanding his 3 interceptions), or how well the Ravens played. For most Bengal fans, the game was lost due to an official replay review. For anyone who was under a rock, in a bomb shelter, or otherwise unawares, let me set the stage for you:
The score is Baltimore 31, Cincinnati 21, and there are 5:35 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Bengals line up for a 3rd-and-2 play at the Ravens 9-yard line. Andy Dalton takes the snap, and throws a dart to TE Jermaine Gresham at about the 2 yard line, near the left sideline. Gresham bobbles the pass, then obtains possession, then gets both feet in bounds, and crosses the plane of the goal line before falling out of bounds. Upon hitting the ground, the ball–secured in Gresham’s right hand–moves a bit. However, his hand never leaves the football. The official nearest the play throws his arms in the air. Touchdown, Bengals–31-27.
As a scoring play, it is automatically reviewed. After much deliberation, Referee Ron Winter announces that due to the ball moving, the pass is incomplete. The Bengals settle for Mike Nugent’s chip shot field goal, making the score 31-24. The Bengals would get the ball back and make it all the way to the Ravens 17 yard line before they ran out of downs. Had the score been 31-28, they would have kicked a game tying field goal instead of attempting a 4th-and-goal from the 17.
Winter’s call is in reference to the now infamous “Calvin Johnson rule” which is still as confusing as ever. Winter argued that Gresham had to maintain control through the catch, and since the ball moved upon his contact with the ground, he did not fulfill that obligation. However, the argument from the Bengal perspective is that:
1. He caught the ball
2. He got two feet inbounds
3. He crossed the plane of the end zone with the ball in his possession.
Therefore, it’s a touchdown. In my interpretation of the rule and looking at the replay, it seems clear that Gresham has absolute control of the ball all the way through the act of getting both feet in bounds and over the pylon. At that point, even if the ball dislodged upon his contact with the ground (out of bounds), it’s a simple “ground can’t cause a fumble” ruling. Indeed, Dan Dierdorf and Greg Gumbel, who were calling the game for CBS seemed to agree. At a minimum, it didn’t appear to be enough evidence to overturn the ruling on the field of touchdown. Unfortunately, Winter’s opinion is the only one that mattered.
The Monday aftermath is suggesting that Bengals might have gotten hosed. Take this point-of-view from former NFL head of officiating, Mike Periera:
Gresham was going to the ground to complete the catch, but he had complete control of the ball in his right hand before the ball hit the ground,” Pereira wrote. “I do agree that the ball moves slightly when it hits the ground, but in this case Gresham kept his right hand on the ball the entire time. The ball will always move, which is why referees are told never to use that terminology. You either maintain possession or you lose possession, which means your hands come off the ball.In the end, it’s all about judgment. But you need absolutely indisputable evidence to overturn a ruling on the field.”
Marvin Lewis’ reaction after the game was this:
“I was told because he went to the ground, once he had the ball that he had to maintain it through the catch. But he broke the plane with the ball outside the end zone and then crossed the end zone with the ball and possession, so I would think it would be a touchdown. But obviously [referee] Ron [Winter] called what he called.”
Then there’s this commentary from Mike Florio over at PFT:
10. Catching up with what’s a catch.
It had been five weeks since the last time the Calvin Johnson rule reared its head in a game situation. On Sunday, the Bengals lost a touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham via the application of a rule that routinely defies with the expectations of the reasonable fan.
Gresham bobbled the ball near the end zone, got possession of it in the vicinity of the goal line, took two steps, fell to the ground with the ball in one hand, and lost the ball when the hand holding it struck the ground.
This year, the league has emphasized the element of time, treating such plays as valid receptions if the receiver who, while going to the ground, had enough time to make a football move, regardless of whether a football move was actually made. And that seems to be what Gresham did. Or at least could have done.
Perhaps more importantly, the fact the officials in real-time called it a catch (and thus a touchdown) would require conclusive 100-drunks-in-a-bar evidence to overturn the play. With the question of whether Gresham had enough time to make a football move a topic that strays into the realm of professional judgment, referee Ron Winter should have deferred to the ruling on the field that Gresham had possession long enough to make a football move.
The outcome reconfirms that the league needs to clean up the rule book once and for all regarding what is and what isn’t a catch when a receiver hits the ground. The “football move” exception is a twist on the uncodified “second act” rule, which allowed the requirement of maintaining possession through the ground to be disregarded when the receiver manages to break the plane of the goal line while falling.
The NFL needs to just start over, crafting a simple rule that the officials can consistently apply — and that meshes with what a reasonable person would regard to be a catch, or not a catch.
As always, the proper interpretation as a fan is to realize that one play does not win or lose a game. There were dozens of other plays and calls that had equal influence on the final outcome. Nonetheless, the Bengals have a legitimate gripe, and the NFL needs to address this rule and the application of it this offseason.