The NFL’s adroitly-drafted statement regarding the Monday night debacle in Seattle glosses over the most important question presented by the play.
What if Packers safety M.D. Jenning gained control of the ball before Golden Tate? As we address that question, keep in mind the difference between “control” and “possession.”
“When the players hit the ground in the end zone, the officials determined that both [Seahawks receiver Golden] Tate and Jennings had possession of the ball,” the league’s statement explains. “Under the rule for simultaneous catch, the ball belongs to Tate, the offensive player. The result of the play was a touchdown.”
In reality, the outcome was determined before the players hit the ground. That’s when Jennings first gained “control” of the ball, regardless of whether Tate eventually secured simultaneous “possession” of it.
The relevant portion of the official 2012 rules comes from Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 5: “It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control.” (Emphasis added.) Thus, it doesn’t matter whether the officials determined that Tate and Jennings jointly had “possession” when they landed; the question is whether Jennings “gained control” first.
The NFL’s statement likely omitted that fact because the video shows Jennings “gained control” first. This video shows the best angle; Jennings caught the ball with both hands while Tate had only one hand (his left) on the ball. Tate eventually got his right hand on the ball, but after Jennings “gained control” of it.
The league’s most recent casebook, which is posted at NFL.com, specifically addresses this situation at A.R. 8.29, under the all-caps title NOT A SIMULTANEOUS CATCH: “First-and-10 on A20. B3 controls a pass in the air at the A40 before A2, who then also controls the ball before they land. As they land, A2 and B3 fall down to the ground. Ruling: B’s ball, first-and-10 on A40. Not a simultaneous catch as B3 gains control first and retains control.” (Emphasis added.)
Some Seahawks fans defend the indefensible claim that the catch isn’t complete until the players land on the ground, citing the ever-confusing “Calvin Johnson rule,” which makes a catch not a catch until the player maintains possession through the act of going to the ground. They cling to that principle for a very good reason; the league’s statement specifically quotes the rule, blurring the line between “control” and “possession.”
Consider the plain language of the rule regarding a completed pass: “A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds: (a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and (b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and (c) maintains control of the ball long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.).”
This isn’t about maintaining control through the act of going to the ground; it’s about who first secured control, whether the players were in the air or on the ground. Jennings first secured control, while he and Tate were in the air.
Here’s A.R. 8.29, with the names of the player’s included: “Jennings controls a pass in the air before Tate, who then also controls the ball before they land. As they land, Tate and Jennings fall down to the ground. Ruling: Green Bay’s ball. Not a simultaneous catch as Jennings gains control first and retains control.”
Though it gets complicated, it’s actually pretty simple. Jennings gained control first. Tate, at best, secured joint control later. That’s not a simultaneous catch.
Then there’s the faction of Seahawks fans who believe that there was insufficient visual evidence to overturn the ruling on the field, regardless of whether the ruling was touchdown or interception. But that’s where the league’s statement also is wrong. It’s indisputable that Jennings gained control first, as evidenced by Jennings having two arms at the ball when Tate has only one.
As a result, we reject the league’s statement as the predictable sort of wagon-circling in which the league has been engaged ever since it put third-rate-at-best officials into the costume and pawned them off as sufficiently competent to rise to the challenge of officiating an NFL game. The very complexity of this rule proves that these officials lack the ability to remember, interpret, and apply these principles in real time.
Of course, the non-replacement replay official and the non-replacement league supervisor screwed this one up, too. Which perhaps highlights the importance of having non-replacement officials who know these rules and can apply these rules on the field at all times.