With 6:19 left in the first quarter of the Detroit Lions' 34-24 win over the Minnesota Vikings, it appeared that Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford hit receiver Calvin Johnson with a 20-yard touchdown pass. Johnson got two feet down and appeared to control the ball as it broke the plane of the goal line, but upon further review, it was determined that he did not maintain control all the way, and the catch was ruled incomplete.
Thus, Calvin Johnson fell victim to the "Calvin Johnson Rule," so named after Johnson was denied a touchdown catch under similar circumstances in Detroit's Week 1 loss to the Chicago Bears in 2010. The NFL's Competition Committee talked about reviewing the rule the next offseason, but held fast.
“If you read the rule, it’s not a catch,” New York Giants president John Mara said in March, 2011. “The reason it’s not a catch is you’ve got to control the ball when you hit the ground. It makes it easier to officiate. It’s a bright line that you can draw.”
It may be a bright line to Mara, but it's pretty blurry to the Lions. After the game, official John Parry tried to explain it to pool reporter Paula Pasche of the Oakland Press.
“A player that is going to the ground on his own, which Calvin was on that play, must possess and maintain the possession of the football through the entire act of the catch. The catch did not end in that scenario. When the ball hit the end zone, the ball moved. It rotated. So he didn’t maintain possession of the football.”
Parry said that the rule applied even though Johnson broke the plane.
"The ball moved without control. If he would have maintained control of the football throughout the entire process, it’s a touchdown. But when the ball hit in the end zone, the ball moved. He did not have complete control of the football, which is why it's incomplete.”
Parry also said that Joique Bell's second-quarter rushing touchdown, in which the ball popped loose after he broke the plane, was a different story.
"The ball had broken the plane under the control of the player and then the ball popped loose," he said of the play that was originally ruled a fumble. That’s why that’s reversed to a touchdown. The ruling on the field was a fumble-change of possession. Automatically reviewed. Those plays are initiated automatically by the replay assistant.”
Lions head coach Jim Schwartz seemed to understand what the refs were thinking.
“If he wasn’t going to the ground as a part of the catch, that would have been the case," Schwartz said, when asked if he thought that Johnson made a 'football move.' "If he would have been on his feet and reaching over and then it would have been a football move. But he was still going to the ground as a part of that catch. I mean, he’s a two-time loser on his own rule."
Johnson, for his part, remained unconvinced.
"Yeah, they got me again," he said. "I’m going to have about four different pictures in there [the rulebook]. I caught the ball, and my feet touched, and then I dove in. I mean, I don’t know.”
The Lions may have been even more confused when they watched Eli Manning's 18-yard touchdown pass to Victor Cruz in the third quarter of Dallas' 36-24 Sunday Night Football win over the New York Giants. It appeared that Cruz lost control of the ball at the end of the "process" (as the league likes to call it), but Cruz's play was ruled a touchdown.
FOX Sports rules analyst Mike Pereira tried to explain the difference.
For alll that ask about the Cruz play, he had completed the catch and was runner. CJ had not and has to hold on the the ball. Simple!If Pereira thinks the rule is simple, he's in a distinct minority.
— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) September 9, 2013