SOME RECEIVER IS GOING TO MAKE A MIRACLE GRAB THIS POSTSEASON. SOME REFEREE IS GOING TO OVERRULE IT. OR VICE VERSA. IT WILL COST SOME TEAM DEARLY. AND TWITTER RAGE WILL ERUPT. THIS IS THE REPLAY WORLD WE LIVE IN (AND ASKED FOR). GET USED TO IT
This is an article from the Jan. 18, 2016 issue
A FRAMED 8-BY-10 photograph hangs on the wall in Bert Emanuel's home office in Houston: a picture of him catching a football thrown by Buccaneers teammate Shaun King in the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game in 2000. At least it appears to be a picture of him catching a football. History holds that Emanuel, in fact, did not catch this particular pass, and it is one of the most notorious incompletions in the annals of professional football.
Emanuel, now 45, only recently acquired the photo from The Tampa Tribune, because for a long time he wasn't certain that he wanted to be reminded every day of his lowest—albeit most memorable—moment in a serviceable eight-year NFL career. "That's my legacy," says Emanuel. "I wasn't sure I wanted to look at that every day." But then one day Emanuel's 12-year-old son, also named Bert, began pestering Dad about the play, and so Emanuel secured the print and established an uneasy truce with it.
For the NFL it's not so easy. The league is still dealing with the dominoes that began falling after that play.
It has been more than five years since the sunlit September afternoon in Chicago when Calvin Johnson also seemingly caught a football, but technically did not, and a generation of NFL fans was introduced to the obscure fine print in the NFL rule book explaining what constitutes the successful catching of a forward pass and what does not.
But they forget. It has been a year now since #DezCaughtIt—or more accurately, didn't catch it—giving birth to a hashtag that lives on to this day. Last Saturday, it was the Steelers' Martavis Bryant hauling in an acrobatic (and unsteady) back-of-the-end-zone TD grab, the legality of which many pundits still struggle to grasp. This season has been one of officiating outrage in the NFL, not the first and probably not the last. There were egregious errors that decided games: a ball illegally batted out of the end zone in Seattle, 18 missing seconds between the Steelers and the Chargers, an overlooked false start that allowed the Jaguars to kick a game-winning field goal, a clock that kept running even when the Bills' Sammy Watkins got out-of-bounds late in a tight game....
Each weekend the league's famously part-time officials perform under the withering gaze of HD cameras and the scalding criticism of their former brethren, ex-zebras postage-stamped into the corner of your screen. A public empowered by social media has been transformed into a shrill watchdog army. And each weekend the rebukes grow louder. "The consistency I look for, I just don't see it," says Mike Holmgren, an NFL coach and executive for 26 years and a former member of the league's competition committee. "I think they're having a bad year—and I'm not even talking about the big screwups. For mistakes like those, a guy should just be fired. My emphasis as a coach was always: Be consistent. And I just don't see that."
Perhaps this perceived demise of good officiating is nothing more than a collision at the intersection of Twitter and evolving technology. Or perhaps the game has become too potent—too fast, too violent—for seven men to control at full speed. Problems stretch across the breadth of the game, right down to the rule book itself, which these days has bloated to 58,117 words. Does offensive holding occur on every pass play? How can officials police the combat that occurs between DBs and receivers? "Defensive pass interference, illegal contact, defensive holding—what is the difference between the three?" Texans coach Bill O'Brien wonders aloud. "You can read it in the [rule] book, but I don't know."
THE PLAYOFFS ARE a week old now, three weeks until the Super Bowl, and the next great controversy hides around a dark corner, waiting to hijack the postseason. One of the most likely culprits is the so-called Catch Rule, a flash point for so much of the anger directed at officials. And that all started with Emanuel. In some ways this entire mess was born on that day when everybody began looking just a little more closely at every play.
By the time of the 1999 playoffs, Emanuel, then 29, was grinding toward the finish of his sixth NFL season. A second-round pick out of Rice, he had played his first four years in Atlanta and averaged 65 catches and 900 yards per season, with 24 touchdowns. In Tampa Bay's more ground-oriented game, his numbers slipped. He underwent off-season ankle surgery in '99, then missed five games with two hamstring pulls, fallen arches and a concussion. "It was a tough year," says Emanuel, who caught only 22 passes and scored just one TD as the Bucs went 11--5 and beat Washington 14--13 to reach the NFC title game against the Rams.
St. Louis's Greatest Show on Turf offense was largely shut down in that contest but scored with 4:50 to play and took an 11--6 lead. The Bucs drove to the Rams' 22-yard line before King was sacked for a 13-yard loss. On second-and-23, the QB threw to Emanuel, who dived, secured the ball against his chest and landed on his left shoulder roughly halfway to a first down. The ball briefly contacted the ground, but it did not move at all. "We called timeout, and I went over to the sideline to talk with coach [Tony] Dungy about the next play," says Emanuel. "Then somebody told us they were reviewing the catch."
The NFL had employed replay review from 1986 through '91 before it was voted out by the league's owners and then restored for the '99 season. Emanuel's catch was selected for a booth review by replay official Jerry Markbreit. "I told Coach Dungy, 'It was clean; there's nothing to review,'" says Emanuel. "Coach said to me, 'I've got a bad feeling about this.'"
Referee Bill Carollo announced the catch was being waved off. After the game he explained to a pool reporter, "It was apparent that the player, as he was catching the ball, used the ground and the tip of the ball hit the ground." After two incompletions with too far to go, the Bucs' drive fizzled out; the Rams hung on. One week later they won Super Bowl XXXIV.
By today's standards and today's rules, the call was egregiously bad. In 2000, however, long-standing rules dictated that receptions on which any part of the ball touched the ground would be ruled incomplete, never mind that players had been catching balls that scraped the ground for years. "If that wasn't a catch, half the balls Cris Carter caught weren't catches," Dungy says of the Hall of Fame receiver who made a living off what were often called "traps." The difference in '00, of course, was replay, which had changed everything about the ways the game was played, officiated and watched.
Two months after the Emanuel reversal, the NFL's competition committee changed the wording of the language that defined a catch, allowing the ball to touch the ground as long as the receiver "maintained control" of the ball. The ostensible reason for the change was to bring the rule into line with common sense; the wording change was a tacit admission of a blown call. But the actual reason for the change was intensely political. The fallout from the Emanuel play had made replay look silly and ineffective. The rewritten rule ensured that owners would approve replay for another year, which they did by a vote of 28--3. "What you had," says Dungy, "was the competition committee coming up with a way to say: What's been a catch for 100 years is still a catch. All because of instant replay."
REPLAY REVIEWS AND corrections are so ingrained in today's game that it's easy to forget the controversy that once attended their inclusion. It was 40 years ago that then Director of Officiating Art McNally set in motion the first replay experiments, saying that the system "gives us a better chance to walk off the field error-free." Replay was not made a permanent part of the NFL until 2007, and then only after three decades of contentious debate. In the spring of '00, the Catch Rule change was just collateral damage in that debate. But it was also the beginning of an uneasy relationship between rules and replay that has altered the game—and the manner in which it is consumed—in ways that its keepers largely did not imagine. (Among those who did foresee it: George Young, architect of the Giants' Super Bowl wins in 1987 and '91 and later a league vice president, who used to carry a folder containing instant replay information, with the words THE MONSTER GROWS written on the outside. "George said to me once, 'Replay is like bringing a camel into the tent,'" recalls Dungy. "'Once you get him in, you're not getting him out.'")
Yet it is not the mere presence of replay that has muddled the game. Almost any consumer of NFL football would agree that replay is beneficial. It is the connection between replay and the rule book that has manifestly changed the game, and nowhere more pointedly than in the catching of a ball. "Unintended consequences," says Dungy. "I didn't see where this would take us."
The Catch Rule alteration of 2000 was significant in another way. "It added a layer of subjectivity," says Mike Pereira, who was an NFL official from 1996 to '97 and the director or VP of officiating from 2001 to '09, and who's now the most ubiquitous of studio referee watchdogs. "Prior to that change, replay was used to correct things based on fact—a boundary, a line. This [change] threw us into a very subjective area."
"Pandora's box," says Holmgren. "When you're overturning judgment plays, you will eventually create a game that's impossible to officiate."
The Catch Rule lay largely free from controversy for a decade after the 2000 tweak. Then, in Week 1 of the '10 season, Lions wideout Calvin Johnson appeared to catch a potential game-winning touchdown pass from Shaun Hill, leaping high at the back of the end zone before falling to his hip and then either dropping or losing the ball as he scrambled to his feet to celebrate. One official signaled touchdown—but he was quickly overruled on the field, and the incompletion was upheld on review. The slow-motion replay of the incompletion was similar to that of the Emanuel play in that the film cut two ways: For the officials, it was definitive proof of an incompletion; for the fans, it was definitive proof of a lousy rule, which in this case stated that Johnson must "maintain control of the ball after he touches the ground." "That rule had been on the books for a long time, it hadn't changed," says Pereira. "But it had never hit a high-profile situation until the Calvin Johnson play."
Dez Bryant's catch/no-catch in the Cowboys' divisional playoff loss to the Packers last January was decidedly more inflammatory. Again a receiver seemed to make a catch. Again the ball came loose late in the process. Again it was ruled an incompletion (after review). And again replay seemed to support the officials and incite fans of every team in the league except one (in this case, Green Bay, which won the game at Dallas's expense).
In the off-season the Catch Rule was tweaked, introducing the phrase "until [the receiver] has clearly become a runner...." to the rule book. A "runner," here, is defined as a player who "is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent." Until a receiver becomes a runner, he can't fumble a ball, he can only fail to catch it. Nevertheless, the 2015 regular season was full of controversial catches and noncatches, fumbles and nonfumbles, resulting in the NFL's formation of a special committee to better define what is—and is not—a catch. As always and evermore: However the language is tweaked, replay reviews will be the final arbiter. Likewise, during these playoffs NFL officials are receiving additional oversight from the league's command center in New York.
From various corners of the game, there is an arm's-length acceptance of this micromanagement, tinged with a sense of loss. "There's no doubt that replay has changed the game," says former NFL vice president Joel Bussert, who in his 40 years with the NFL was its rule book guru and presided over competition committee meetings. "When you think about it, before 1963, replay didn't even exist as an entertainment tool. And before '86, it didn't exist as an officiating tool. Plays happened, and then they died. Now plays live forever." (Bussert acknowledges Butch Johnson's touchdown catch for the Cowboys in Super Bowl XII as an example of a play that likely would have been overturned on replay. But there are surely hundreds of others. "We made mistakes," says Bussert. "Of course.")
Holmgren likes that quality. "Humans play the game, humans should officiate it," he says. "I'm not saying don't use replay, but you can't make every single call correct. A guy like [Patriots coach Bill] Belichick gets up in a meeting and says he wants unlimited challenges (meaning: on any kind of play). I'm not with him on that. The game has always been difficult to officiate. Now we've got anonymous people in the sky watching things like down and distance? Come on. Know the rules and do your job on the field."
"The league has to be very careful, going forward, in the pursuit of perfection," says Pereira, who admits that his weekend television presence and sizzling Twitter feed (283,000 followers; 22,000 tweets, a good portion of them openly questioning referees' calls) are expressly part of the problem—if, indeed, it is a problem. "One of the things you're seeing now is many officials who are being much more tentative on the field and relying on others to do their job for them. I'm afraid you're going to see instances where there's a play, and then the officials huddle and New York is talking to them, and then the referee comes out and says, 'The call is....' The slope is oiled, and it's very slippery."
The postseason rolls on and the replays pile up. The game's history is altered. Maybe Franco didn't catch the Immaculate Reception. Would the Raiders have been allowed to score on the Holy Roller, or would it have been ruled an incomplete pass?
Last week Bert Emanuel drove his car around Houston and talked about something that happened 16 years ago, his first interview on the subject since a week after the game. He has a good life—five children, all good athletes, and a medical scrubs company that he just started. But there is that photo on his wall and a rule named in his honor—unwanted distinctions. "To be honest," says Emanuel, "I'd prefer a Super Bowl ring."
THE CASE FOR EACH OF THE 8 PLAYOFF TEAMS
GREG A. BEDARD