GREEN BAY, Wisc. – Minutes after they walked off the Lambeau Field turf, the Cowboys’ reaction could be summed up by one four-letter expletive shouted by someone inside the visitors’ shower stalls: “F---!”
The Cowboys’ season ended with a 26-21 loss to the Packers, after it seemed like it would be extended in most thrilling fashion. One week after a controversial pass interference no-call helped lift the Cowboys over the Lions, this decision by the officials is under even more scrutiny.
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“Disappointed is not the word,” team owner Jerry Jones said. “Shocked and disappointed.”
Trailing by five with 4:42 to play, the Cowboys faced a 4th-and-2 on Green Bay’s 32-yard line. Tony Romo made the gutsy throw, but when you see Dez Bryant streaking up the sideline in one-on-one coverage with Sam Shields (three inches shorter and 36 pounds lighter), you take it. The 31-yard throw was ruled complete, placing the Cowboys one yard from taking back the lead. Packers coach Mike McCarthy, though, threw the red challenge flag.
Bryant and Romo were slapping hands on the sideline, not believing the catch would be overturned. The Packers’ goal-line defense was getting set on the field.
“All I know is, I had possession, and I had possession of the ball coming down,” Bryant said. “That’s possession, right? One, two [feet], reach, that’s possession.”
The officials disagreed. Referee Gene Steratore announced that Bryant did not maintain possession through to the ground, and the ref overturned the catch and turned the ball over to the Packers on downs. The Cowboys wouldn’t get the ball back, and the Packers will go onto Seattle for the NFC Championship Game.
Bryant was in disbelief after the game, not understanding how the play he made was not a catch. He leaped over Shields, grabbed the ball with both hands and took two steps as his momentum carried him forward. But as he tumbled to the ground, the ball was squirting out. The relevant rule is what’s known as the Calvin Johnson rule, which erased what would have been a game-winning touchdown by Johnson in a 2010 game between the Lions and Bears.
“Although the receiver is possessing the football, he must maintain possession of that football throughout the entire process of the catch,” Steratore told the pool reporter after the game. “In our judgment, he maintained possession but continued to fall and never had another act common to the game. We deemed that by our judgment to be the full process of the catch, and at the time he lands and the ball hits the ground, it comes loose as it hits the ground, which would make that incomplete.”
During the review, Steratore conferred with NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino in New York, and Steratore said it was clear to both that the ball did hit the ground. Blandino posted on his Twitter account a confirmation of the decision.
Still, after the game, Bryant didn’t understand. He lingered in the locker room, talking to several waves of reporters, seeking an answer. “I want to know why it wasn’t a catch?” he asked more than once. “He had three feet down,” said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.
Shields, unsurprisingly, had a different interpretation of the play. “He dropped it,” Shields said with a grin. “No, I mean, he went up to the highest point, he caught it, and at the end, he bobbled it. The refs came up with a good call. And Coach McCarthy, he also threw the flag at the right time. Everything was perfect.”
Added Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, “Everyone knows the Calvin Johnson rule. … When I saw the replay, I was confident right away it would be an incomplete pass.”
The Cowboys had been on an impressive run this season, overcoming Romo’s offseason back surgery and key losses of players on defense, to win the NFC East with a 12-4 record. In the wild-card round, they rallied to win after the Lions jumped out to a 14-0 lead. That game was marked by an officiating controversy, too, when a flag for pass interference against Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens on Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew was picked up on a 3rd-and-1 in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys got the ball back and drove for the winning score.
But this decision by the officials, based on the time of the game and the location on the field, more directly impacted the outcome of the game. The Cowboys jumped into the lead early in the second quarter, on a 38-yard touchdown catch by Terrance Williams, and seemed to be catching the Packers at the right time, with Rodgers visibly limited by his left calf injury. But the Packers pieced together a touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter, powered by seven straight completions by Rodgers, to take a 26-21 lead with 9:10 remaining.
Dallas got the ball back, needing a play like the one Romo and Bryant thought they made. Instead, their possession, and their season, ended on a controversial incomplete pass.
“This is really, seriously, one of the more disappointing times I’ve had,” Jones said.
GALLERY: IMAGES OF THE CONTROVERSIAL PASS PLAY