NFL Acknowledges Two of Three Officiating Mistakes in Cowboys Giants Game, One of Which Took Away the Win From the Giants

NFL Acknowedged Two Officiating Mistakes in the Sunday Night Giants Cowboys Game, One of Which Gave Dallas Four Points, and the Other Ultimately Gave Them the Game.

The referees blew at least three officiating calls against the New York Giants in last Sunday Night’s Game at Dallas, two of which were officially recognized and acknowledged by the league after the game.

The first gave Dallas a 1st and goal at the 2, instead of 4th down and an otherwise clear field goal situation. And it ultimately gave them an extra four points as a result.

The second brought up a 4th down for the Giants (instead of a 1st that would have ended the game), and an ensuing field goal that led to a long shot opportunity for Dallas to ultimately win; an opportunity which, as part of some highly ill advised strategic play by the Giants, the Cowboys capitalized on.

The third of at least three mistakes was the overturning of a second quarter, third down catch by TE Larry Donnell that would have given the Giants a first down, instead of the ensuing 4th down punting situation from inside the Giants own 30 yard line.

This third mistake was not acknowledged by the league. And it was also widely (but not exclusively) not considered to have been a mistake. (It is also being covered as part of a more detailed piece on the “completing the catch” rule and how to fix it that I’ve been working on – an update with link will be provided when available).

The Cowboys won their replay challenge of this third “controversial” play because, as the replay official put it in reversing the ruling of “catch” on the field; the “ball came out when the receiver hit the ground.”

But the fact was that the catch had been completed before the receiver even hit the ground. So hitting the ground was no longer relevant to completing the catch.

The receiver, TE Larry Donnell, caught the ball out in front of him with two hands, firmly (and without interruption), holding onto and controlling the ball.

He was running at the point the ball hit his hands, both feet in the air, one in front of him (his right), one behind. The right hand of Cowboys rookie 1st round draft pick (#27 overall) CB Byron Jones was close to Donnell’s back, and his left hand was up in front trying to reach the ball either as, before, or after it made contact with Donnell’s hands. But given that QB Eli Manning led Donnell nicely with the pass, Jones wasn’t close enough. S Barry Church was also a few yards away, behind and slightly downfield of Donnell, and also trying to close in.

After the ball made contact with Donnell’s hands, his right foot came down, completing the process of taking a full step, a step initiated before the ball hit his hands. At the point he first “caught” the ball, his left left foot was well behind him, also slightly above the ground and, after placing his right down in front of him, he moved his left foot from well behind his body to in front of his body, and placed it down on the ground, to complete the “step.”

As Donnell’s left foot came down in front of him, completing his step, his right foot lifted off the ground behind him, was brought in front as part of the process of running forward, and likewise placed on the ground in front of him, to complete a second step.

During all this and as a result of it, Donnell moved at an oblique angle toward the sideline as well as somewhat toward the goal line, consistent with both advancing the ball and escaping his two pursuers; one of whom, Jones, was nearly step for step with him, and a faster runner.

Jones finally tackled Donnell, after his second step, and before he could bring his left leg around and place it on the ground in front of him for a third.

Depending on how it’s defined, Donnell took either two or two and a half clear, separate steps to both advance the ball and elude defenders. And did so with full control of the ball the entire time.

Or, arguably (if weakly), he took one and one half steps. That is, if the act of moving the left leg from behind to in front, and placing it on the ground after the right leg makes contact with the ground in front – which move itself, though before the leg leg forward action, came after in turn the ball being “caught” by his hands – nevertheless failed to constitute a “step.”

One way to keep the rule very clear, and also at least justify the outcome of the replay “no catch” decision, would be to count two steps with the ball as a football move. But the steps each have to separately involve the picking up of that foot off the turn and placing it back down in the desired direction, which requires four separate moves. (Or six, depending on how counted: Foot not just lifted, but lifted specifically off of turf, then moved through air in desired and football relevant direction, brought down, second foot lifted off of turf, moved through air in desired and football relevant direction, and brought down. Remember, Donell’s “first” step was the completion of this right leg step, which became completed after he caught the ball. At that moment his left leg, if slightly off the ground, was well behind his body; and he brought it to well forward of his body and then to the ground.)

(Another way of doing it would be that if the player is airborne, even if it simply happens to be in the course of running forward, then no football moves or steps can possibly be considered to have occurred until both feet hit the ground; again this is somewhat of a stretch given that a player otherwise can plant one foot and make a clear move in the process of subsequently planting the other, or simply continue what is a clear full step as part of the process of running forward.)

If that was the case, and thus the only thing that otherwise makes any sense at all for the catch to have not been completed before the issue of Donnell hitting the ground would even become relevant in the first place, then that’s what the referee has to address in explaining his replay reversal:

In other words, something explaining why the act of being tackled to the ground and subsequent holding onto the ball, even after hitting the ground, was even relevant in the first place.  And which, in turn, is both the key, and threshold, question in all such instances where this “completing the catch” rule comes, or may come, into play.

If these decisions are not both understood and assessed this way, – that is, first, does the issue of having to hold onto the ball even come into play in the first place, and if so, and more importantly and specifically, why – they will be both botched (as we’ve repeatedly seen in the league) and inconsistently decided.

But here the referee overlooked the only real relevant question. And in his explanation, instead addressed just about the only thing already crystal clear and known from the live running of the play, and not even remotely in controversy or dispute:

Namely, the fact that the ball came out when Donnell hit the ground.

In fact, though not as obvious from live play, it looked to be jarred out by Jones’ left hand. Which in turn means that to keep the ruling consistent and have it make any sense, had Donnell not hit the ground yet, the referees would have had to “overturn” the apparent fumble, since by definition the catch could not have yet been completed. And thus, in such an (unusual) instance, the next day there would have been a hullabaloo over the stolen “fumble,” instead of the relative quiet that greeted this play.

And this clearly already known fact of the ball coming out and only having even an iota of meaning in the first place – what the referee was kind enough to reinform us of – was only relevant if the catch had not been completed prior to hitting the ground. Which, in turn, can only have occurred if the player did not either have “time” for a football move (not accurate here, and also subjective and one of the problems with the way the rule is currently written) OR didn’t make a football move.

And the receiver clearly did make a football move, unless catching a ball on the full run with both feet (as often happens when running) simultaneously in the air, one well in front one well behind, then the front foot hitting, then the rear foot (now the front foot) hitting, then the original front foot (then becoming the rear foot and NOW becoming the front foot again) hitting, and all while completely upright and in full control of his body, and all before the receiver is tackled down, is somehow not a football move.

And which, if it’s not, is something the referee needs to address; not say something completely fudging or ignoring the real issue, and addressing the patently obvious “the ball came out when the receiver hit the ground” rather than the relevant: Was it necessary for the receiver to have held onto the ball when hittinfg the ground, because he had not completed the catch, and if not, why.

Thus, if (and the weaker argument), two official football “steps” weren’t taken, to not address that – when it was the only real issue the referees needed to decide upon review – yet specifically explain to the crowd, teams, and viewing audience what didn’t need explaining and was already known, is at best bizarre. And it’s both part of why this “complete the catch” rule is inconsistently applied and highly confused, and consistent with such confusion.

Also, if two steps were taken and similarly ignored, then we can go back into NFL history and take away every single touchdown ever scored since the hitting the ground rule addition several years ago, where a receiver catches the ball on the run, runs many yards, perhaps 50 or more, straight to the end zone, and then in the end zone drops, spikes, flips or upon hitting the turf (perhaps in a body flip attempt) otherwise loses the ball, since steps do not constitute “football moves.” (And thus the catch was never “completed.”)

And, if crossing the goal line constitutes a “football move” (which would make no sense), then, in turn, any catch just outside of it where no football move was made before breaking the plane of the goal line, would nevertheless have to be ruled a catch and a touchdown, regardless of its blatant conflict with both the “complete the catch” rule, as well as its constant interpretation since it’s been instituted.

Thus while the league acknowledged two missed but somewhat subjective and – particularly live – generally difficult calls (both pass interference), there was a more telling and important third botch, which goes beyond difficult subjective interpretation of rapid live action that (right now), can’t be reviewed. And an area that needs, and has available to it, clarification and improvement

Even Chiefs receiver Jeremy Maclin, after a sensational sideline catch against the Texans in week 1 – wherein Maclin caught the ball then hit with his left foot then his right foot then his left foot then fell backward, full in bounds (hitting in bounds with his butt, then out of bounds a fraction of a second later with his right hand), then fell backward onto his shoulders with the ball never moving, then momentum carrying him he rolled 180 overhead, at this point obviously all while out of bounds, with the ball never close to touching the ground during the entire duration of the play, and only out of his full and complete control for a split instant while he was rolling upside down well out of bounds, was reversed and ruled not a catch upon replay review. (Also see here and here), rather understatedly proclaimed: “There needs to be a seminar on what is and isn’t a catch.”

With respect to the two officially acknowledged pass interference call “mistakes,” it’s important to recognize that live calls during the course of play, particularly on pass intereference, are difficult. And referees will occassionally make mistakes: Even in that same Jeremy Maclin Texans game the referees also made one, missing a pass interference on the Chiefs in the end zone, which from his reaction, one would think Texans head coach Bill O’Brien assumed never happens. (With replays, and thus game stoppages, official pomp and circumstance, and careful examination of exactly what happened upon slow motion review from several angles and concise application of the relevant rule, major officiating mistakes shouldn’t happen; and when they arguably do, should only be because a situation is so close that subjective interpretation can’t be avoided.)

Mistakes are part of the game. And it’s also important to emphasize: While the Giants let the Cowboys back into the game by playing far too soft on defense after going up by ten points late, but not late enough to simply give up easy touchdown drives, they did essentially all but “win it” again, by making a few key conversions to all but run out the clock on their ensuing drive.

And then lost the game through a series of poor strategic decisions:

First, on offense. And, ironically, leading to the second of the botched calls by the referees, a non pass interference call when tight end Daniel Fells was clearly held on the play, and the blatant holding looked to extend beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage; then, once again, playing far too soft for the situation on defense, as if the NFL rules were the Giants “win” if they avoid one big play, rather than win by keeping their opponent from driving down the field and getting into the end zone and finishing up with more points than them. (Which is best prevented by maximizing the odds of not even allowing the Cowboys to get anywhere close to the end zone if they need that TD to win or tie.)

That said, this second of the two botched officating calls, as it worked out, ultimately did change the outcome of the game. And it did so about as much as is possibly relevant in football – namely from a win to a loss:

With 1:43 left and no timeouts, up by 3 points from the Cowboys’ one yard line, the Giants ill-advisedly called a pass play. And far more ill-advisedly apparently didn’t do so with the admonition that “if the receiver isn’t wide open tuck both hands around the ball, protect it first and foremost, and dive toward the end zone and away from the sidelines.”

The reason for that admonition (which should have barely been needed, as Eli Manning is usually a fairly savvy game manager, and back when the Giants thought the Cowboys had one less time out than they did – somewhat understandable after a lot of penalty clock stoppages and timeout non uses and confusion – even correctly if controversially advised his running back not to score, since they could have run the clock down to a few seconds down at the 1, up by 3, by so doing) is that while scoring a TD when up by 3 on the opponents’ 1 yard line and the game clock running down to a minute or less and no opponent timeouts is nice, it’s important to not give said an extra forty seconds of clock time in a situation where, but for a near TD kickoff return, they will need the equivalent of a Hail Mary or two to win. And where doing a run play and avoding going out of bounds will still give you a very legimate chance to score anyway, but use up the key forty seconds if you don’t.

But Fells was apparently held on the pass play call. Bad move Cowboys, and a break for the Giants. (Who again, kicking off, up by 6, and only 1:34 left on the clock and no Dallas timeouts, should have won anyway, as trailing teams, without that extra 20 or 30 seconds or so for a few incompletions or middle of the field movement worked in, almost never win, but against these days calm and serene even in late game situations and long time comeback king QB Tony Romo, with that offensive line, better for the game to be mathematically over than give the Cowboys that long shot chance in the first place.)

Or it would have been, had the hold correctly been called. That is, after the defensive holding or pass interference call gives the Giants a first and goal at the 1 (instead of the fourth and goal which instead came up), with now 1:39 left on the game clock they would take a knee twice, running the clock down to about 12 seconds, then take their final kneel down, and the game ends 23-20 Giants.

The first of the two officially recognized blown officiating calls, subjective or not, was also important, if ultimately not as important as the second. But the way the game worked out it  stood a good chance of working out the way way anyway. (That is, the change by virtue of the referee’s incorrect pass intereference call likely didn’t affect either team’s strategy or subsequent clock management too much from the way each played, though the Cowboys would have been even more desperate on the Giants last drive, and might have tried some higher risk reward defense plays, and the Giants, who already were overly soft after subsequently going up by 10, might have played even softer – if even possible, had they been up by 14). In other words, and barring any chances in subsequent play and outcome as a result, it would have put the Giants in a situation where they were up by 7 at the end – and not 3 – before kicking that field goal from the 1 yard line. Which would have put them up by 10 at the end.  And not 6.

Thus, again barring any earlier changes as a result, game probably over in that case as well.

That first call came with 4:13 left in the third quarter. Somewhat late, but not that late that it couldn’t have affected the way the game played out. With Dallas trailing 16-6 and facing a 3rd and 4 at New York’s 18 yard line, Tony Romo’s pass to WR Terrance Williams went incomplete, and DB Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie was called for pass interference on what seemed like a bad call – and the league later said was a bad call as one of these two key, later acknowledged, officiating mistakes.

As I have the personal opinion that the game’s rules have been tweaked and are being interpreted to favor quarterbacks and passing over defending, and to me it seemed a terrible call by the referees even under the new harsher pass interference and defensive holding rule calls of the last few years, I have a ten minute analysis from the live game from Sunday night itself on why it was a bad call, and what was essentially a 4 point gift to the Cowboy’s; since the Cowboys clearly would have kicked a field goal on 4th and 4 from the 18 and instead were given a 1st and goal from the 2. So, thanks NFL for addressing that one. It’s not always the case that a ten minute rant in notes “horrible pass inteference call because….” later gets officially affirmed by the league.

Again, there was still plently of time left in the game to play, and it could have worked out differently.

But the way the game did happen to play out, there’s a good chance it would not have, and the four points thus also wound up making the difference between the Giants ultimately winning and losing, the missed pass interefence/hold call on Fells, their strange call of the pass play and then throwaway (thus stopping the clock), and subsequent super soft “prevent” (them from winning) defense on the last drive, notwithstanding.

But rather than simply knee jerk defend it’s referees, it’s pretty big of the NFL to acknowledge what, if they were mistakes, were both somewhat critical to the outcome of the game.

That said, it’s worth emphasizing once again, as I’m sure the Giants, being a consistently winning organization under head coach Tom Coughlin and QB Eli Manning, already recognize. Yes they would have won the game but for those “blown” calls. (And automatically, by simply taking a knee, in the case of the second non holding call.) But they lost the game themselves. Not the refs.

Holding and interference calls are subjective, and difficult, and even occassionally likely very mistaken calls are part of the game.

Some, reasonably, argue for replay on pass interference, and there’s pros and cons therein. They can be important calls – hence the argument for review. But adding even more replays turns the game even more into a technical and elongated review contest, and many of the calls are still subjective – the arguments against.

But inconsistent and often somewhat contradictory application of a “complete the catch if hit the ground and the ball comes out” rule – the seemingly non recognized third officiating mistake (or poor handling, in any regard) – is not; and more relevantly, can be improved.

The simplest manner is to start with the idea addressed herein:

The rule only comes into play, and for clarity, consistency, and more precise application has to be so initially so addressed, if the catch was not completed prior to the receiver hitting the ground.

And the rules for football moves more clearly enunciated – as well as also probably doing away with the ambiguous and problem creating “time for a football move” language currently in place. Or, as Maclin so rightly says, at least provide a seminar on what they are, and why.  And then, consistently, stick with them.

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9 thoughts on “NFL Acknowledges Two of Three Officiating Mistakes in Cowboys Giants Game, One of Which Took Away the Win From the Giants

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