In what feels like a weekly tradition, the Detroit Lions found themselves at the heart of a controversial call on Sunday. This time, the refs gave the Lions a break—by most accounts, a huge break.
On the play in question, Matthew Stafford fired a third-and-goal pass from the Chicago two-yard line to Golden Tate, who was stripped of possession by Kyle Fuller just as he crossed the goal line. The Bears' Jonathan Tomlinson intercepted the ricochet in the end zone, and the officials on the field all signaled the play as a touchback.
Here's a look at it, along with NFL head of officials Dean Blandino’s explanation:
FOX color commentator and former NFL player Ronde Barber said without hesitation that it should be ruled incomplete. FOX rules analyst Mike Pereira agreed, stating that Tate had not established himself as a runner and was going to the ground on the play, which would mean he had to control the football until he completed the process—i.e. made it all the way to the ground.
But the call was reversed upon review, with referee Walt Coleman deciding that Tate had scored prior to losing the ball.
“[He] took three steps and broke the plane,” Coleman announced.
It was an extremely short explanation of the reversal, though the three steps portion is key because that apparently was Coleman's way of declaring that Tate had established himself within the field of play.
Rule 8, section 1, article 3 of the NFL rule book states: "A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with 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."
This is the rule that worked against, say, Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant on infamous incompletions. Atlanta's Devonta Freeman also had a touchdown wiped out recently, despite stretching the ball out toward the end zone, because he was deemed to be "going to the ground" when he lost control.
And that's the differentiation NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino made from the NFL's replay command center in New York: "Golden Tate controlled the pass right at the goal line," Blandino said in an explanation video. "This is different than the plays we've been talking about: the Dez Bryant play or the Calvin Johnson play. This is not a receiver who is going to the ground. ... He is taking his third step, he had demonstrated possession, had become a runner."
There is almost no point trying to make sense of the NFL's catch rules anymore. Whenever a little bit of consistency starts to emerge, a play like this occurs to flip everything upside down again. The main problem, again, is that the rule book does not clearly define how a player "establishes himself as a runner." Coleman explained it as taking three steps, but nowhere does the rule book lay that out as a criteria.
If the ruling is that Tate wasn't going to the ground here, that also is cutting these plays rather thin under current definitions. Chicago cornerback Kyle Fuller hit Tate as soon as the pass arrived, dragging him to the ground right after that so-called third step occurred.
The call handed Detroit a 21–13 lead at halftime, when the initial ruling would have left the score at 14–13—a huge swing in a close game. And though Blandino backed Coleman's reversal, just about everyone else watching was left in a state of confusion.