If you watch the replay one more time, especially the full shot of the entire play, you could be forgiven for losing your cool. With 4:42 left in the fourth quarter of the Cowboys’ divisional round matchup against the Packers in Green Bay, on fourth and two, and Dallas down by five, Tony Romo heaved a come-and-get-it pass deep down the sideline toward Dez Bryant. Bryant definitely grabs the ball out of the air, and gets both of his feet down, over the head of Green Bay corner Sam Shields. He makes the catch at the five yard line, dives forward, and extends the ball toward the end zone. The ref rules the pass complete, marking Bryant down about a foot from the goal line. The stadium erupts.
After review, however, the catch got overturned. Because it was a fourth down play, the Cowboys turned the ball over on downs, and the Packers managed to do enough to run out the clock without giving Tony Romo another chance to take the lead. Cowboys out, Packers in, game over. Referee Gene Steratore, who made the decision to overturn Bryant’s catch, explained his decision after the game:
“Although the receiver is possessing the football, he must maintain possession of that football throughout the entire process of the catch,” Steratore told a 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; although he re-possesses it, it does not contact the ground when he reaches so the repossession is irrelevant because it was ruled an incomplete pass when we had the ball hit the ground.”
That’s a lengthy explanation, but one that presumably satisfies few Cowboys fans today.
The rule Steratore references is what’s become known as the “Calvin Johnson Rule,” after the Lions’ wide receiver had a touchdown call reversed because, at the end of the play, he let go of the ball after hitting the ground. In that situation, the very dumb rule is pretty clear-cut: Johnson did not maintain possession of the ball throughout the process of the catch, since he lost it at the end.
The question in Bryant’s case, then, is: When does “the process of the catch” end? According to the NFL rule book, it’s when the receiver makes “a football move,” a vague nothingburger of a term whose definition is equally abstract: “A football move” is “an act common to the game.” (That clears that up!) Basically, this is why a guy making a diving catch of a ball that he drops as he hits the turf and a player snatching a ball out of the air is an incomplete pass, while a guy who loses the ball after his knee is down on a forty yard catch-and-run is not. The controversy surrounding the call in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s Cowboys playoff game, then, comes down to: Is diving forward and extending the ball toward the goal line “an act common to the game”?
We would submit that it probably is, and so did a whole hell of a lot of other people throughout the Internet (and in sports bars throughout Texas and beyond, too). The most hilarious hashtag that sprang up around this was probably #JeSuisDez, a takeoff on the #JeSuisCharlie tag that’s trended internationally after the murder of a number of French cartoonists last week. (Some might question the taste involved in using a hashtag to show solidarity with murdered innocents to protest the outcome of a football game, but given that the whole point of Charlie Hebdo was to prove that there is no cow too sacred to roast, we suspect they’d have been tickled by the whole thing.) That tag appeared to have been started by Twitter user @WineJerk, and enjoyed a brief run on the social networking site during the afternoon.
Beyond the hashtags, voices ranging from the Detroit Lions (victims of a controversial call to Dallas’ benefit only a week earlier), to noted Cowboys fan LeBron James, to Giants receiver Odell Beckham, to an 88-year-old grandmother crying “they got screwed!” over and over in her living room, all weighed in to express their shock and outrage:
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) January 11, 2015
I by no means cheer for Dallas but I have no idea what or how thts not called a catch . Thts a joke
— Odell Beckham Jr (@OBJ_3) January 11, 2015
What is the definition of a catch or not in the NFL? I really wanna know? No one can answer the ?
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 11, 2015
And so the fairly remarkable 2014 Dallas Cowboys season is over. And within hours of the game ending, things then went from “disappointing” to “awful,” if you’re interested in what the 2015 Cowboys might look like: Owner/GM Jerry Jones made the extremely unusual move at the beginning of the season to not extend the contracts of his coaching staff, opting instead to leave Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli—the man most plainly responsible for the Cowboys’ defense exceeding all expectations and making the team a contender this year—as lame ducks.
The advantage to doing so was that, should the Cowboys disappoint in 2014, Jones could hire new coaches without having to pay Garrett or Marinelli not to work. The reason most owners and general managers don’t do that is, should the coaches exceed expectations, they’re free to sign with any team they like.
That means that, after Aaron Rodgers’ final kneeldown to kill the clock this afternoon, the Cowboys were without a head coach or a defensive coordinator. And while Garrett is likely to return—he hasn’t talked about seeking a job elsewhere, anyway—news broke shortly after the game that Rod Marinelli was expected to reunite with his best coaching pal, Lovie Smith, as the defensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Marinelli is one of the game’s best defensive minds—should he not sign with Tampa, there are at least, oh, 25 teams or so who should consider firing their current coordinator if they can make a run at Marinelli—and the fact that the Cowboys could lose him with no compensation because Jones wanted to save on a few salaries in the event this was a “fire everybody” season speaks poorly to his decision-making, to say the least.
It’s unclear if any of the other teams with head coaching vacancies—that is to say, the Falcons, Bears, Jets, Raiders, 49ers, or Bills (who may officially announce Rex Ryan as their new head coach at any moment)—are interested in pursuing Garrett, or if Garrett would return that interest. But the fact that the list of teams with head coaching vacancies somehow includes the 11-5 Cowboys coming off of their best season in half a decade is fairly absurd.
Garrett and Marinelli aren’t the only high-profile Cowboys names who might be elsewhere next season, either. Bryant, the hero-in-exile of Sunday’s game, is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the start of the 2015 league year in March—as are star running back Demarco Murray, linebackers Bruce Carter and Rolando McClain, and defensive end Anthony Spencer. (Wide receiver Cole Beasley, who emerged as a solid #3 receiving option in the playoffs, is a restricted free agent, which means he’s almost certain to return.) Bryant might be a target for the franchise tag, which would allow Jones to retain his rights for the upcoming season at a one-year cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million (an average of the five highest-paid players at the position), but that decision has to be made by late February. Each team is only able to tag one player, making it extremely unlikely that both Murray and Bryant are in white and silver next year—at least one of them is going to be free to sign elsewhere, barring a blockbuster deal from Jones. Meanwhile, the defensive players—especially McClain, who shined for the Cowboys after spending the first several years as a draft bust—are all strong candidates to end up in sunny Tampa Bay, or wherever Marinelli ends up coaching.
All of which is to say that the 2015 Dallas Cowboys could look dramatically different from the 2014 playoff team. Theoretically, the team could have a new head coach, a new defensive coordinator, be without Demarco Murray or Dez Bryant, and have lost a few of the handful of defensive players who turned into playmakers this year under Marinelli’s tutelage. (And that assumes that Tony Romo, he of the many-fractured back, feels healthy enough during the offseason to continue his career.) That’s quite a transition for a team that seemed, finally, to have turned some very real corners.
It may not shape up that way: Jones has deep pockets, and he could outbid potential suitors for his coaches without worrying about a salary cap. Murray might go, but Jones’ mutual flirtation with suspended Vikings star Adrian Peterson could finally be consumated during the offseason, an on-field upgrade even if Peterson, who pled no contest to assaulting his six-year-old child last year, comes with some potential risk. Bryant is a strong candidate to be tagged, and there aren’t enough stars on the Cowboys defense to lament the loss of any particular players, should they go—and if Marinelli stays, players like McClain are probably more likely to hang around, too.
In other words, what looks like a clearcut future for the Cowboys could, upon further review, go in one of two directions—and the outcome will have a massive impact on whether they go on as contenders or not. Today, that has to be a pretty sickening feeling for Cowboys fans.
(AP Photo/James D Smith)