I have heard enough “experts” say that the refs got the call right on Jesse James’ non-catch on the goal line against the Patriots. I’ll go along with it. Besides, if the Steelers had been able to do anything with Rob Gronkowski on the Patriots’ last drive it would not have mattered what happened on James’ play; it’s something that we should consider. Still, there are two things that Roger Goodell needs to know about that situation that are much more important to the future of his league than the results of one game.
First is this: what’s a catch? Roughly speaking, I have watched about a thousand NFL games in my life. I am far from a neophyte at this, so when I tell you that I have no idea whether James’ play was a legal catch, that is a problem. Not because I never got a clear view, but because I don’t understand the rule. A large part of the credibility of any sport is based on the fact that fans know what to expect. A called strike on Monday should not be a ball on Tuesday because a different guy is umpiring behind the plate. Rules should be enforced consistently and they should be clear enough that any fan with a rudimentary understanding of the game can determine the proper call. The NFL has turned its interpretation of what constitutes a “catch” into such a mishmash that a dozen or so plays in every game leave room for argument.
Here is my argument about what happened to James: if he had gone down at the one-yard line, it would have been a catch. Only by attempting to stretch past the goal line did he cause himself to bobble the ball enough to create doubt. The act of stretching across the goal line is the “football move” that the league at one point said was needed to constitute a legal catch. If that is no longer the case, I didn’t get the memo. How many steps would James have had to take before “surviving the contact with the ground” would have no longer come into play? I don’t know. It seems clear that Jesse James didn’t know the rule at the time he made that play. And it took a crew of referees 10 minutes to decide whether the rule applied in this situation. Any rule that confusing is a bad rule.
Which brings us to my second point: the replay rule is clear on when a call should be overturned, which is only when there is clear evidence of a mistake. By definition, any call that takes 10 minutes to figure out contains enough doubt that it should not be overturned. Any call that takes more than 10 seconds to figure out should not be overturned. This has nothing to do with this particular game because this was a call that impacted the playoff race in a huge way. Most replays, though, happen in circumstances that impact nothing more than a losing coach’s job security. If this type of call had happened in the game between Denver and Indianapolis, for instance, thousands of people would have switched the channel or gone to bed.
This applies to every sport. There are some calls that we can get right, and we should do what we can to get them right. Buzzer beaters are cut and dried. There are never more than four in a basketball game, so the minute or so that it takes to check those is worth it. But a certain number of plays will fall into a grey area where reasonable minds can differ. Not because of a rules interpretation, but because things happen so quickly that we are not sure what we saw. We can’t get those calls 100% right, and by trying to do so we are doing more harm than good.
Replay came into being because there are a couple of calls every season that are egregious errors, and modern technology allows us to know that instantly. Those calls should be fixed. My proposal is this: have 10 people with a strong grasp of the rules watch every game, equipped with a button that is linked to the game officials. Anytime any of those folks disagree with a call, they hit their button. The refs are alerted only if at least 9 of the 10 buttons are pushed within 10 seconds. That way, if a call is clearly blown, it gets fixed, or at least reviewed. If enough doubt exists that more than one of the buttons is not pushed, the call stands. Maybe we won’t fix every bad call with this system, but we will have a better game than we do now.