Thursday’s NFL media briefing included a cameo appearance from senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron, who addressed a couple of current hot topics — the catch rule and the rule against using foreign objects to measure first downs. Along the way, he explained the decision to overturn the Jesse James touchdown in the Patriots-Steelers game, unwittingly confirming that the NFL doesn’t simply have a catch rule problem. It also has a replay standard problem.
“In this situation, it was not necessarily a football move,” Riveron said regarding James’ catch and lunge at the goal line, according to a transcript provided by the league. “It was going to the ground. Any time you’re going to the ground, whether it’s on your own, whether you’re contacted by an opponent, or whether you’re contacted by a teammate, you must survive the ground. What does that mean? That means once you make initial contact with the ground, you must have control of the football before it touched the ground. In this situation, yes, his knee goes down. But we know Sunday football, the knee going down, you are still live and can do whatever you want with the football as opposed to college football. So, yes, the knee was down, he does make another move where he’s reaching for pay dirt. Once he reaches for pay dirt, he loses control of the football. Before he regains control of the football, it touches the ground. Therefore, it was an incomplete pass. This is not so much about a football move, it’s about going to the ground. In the process of going to the ground, you must survive the ground via having control of the football upon the initial contact with the ground.”
At no point does Riveron say what he should have said: The ruling on the field was that the pass was complete. To overturn the ruling, there had to be clear and obvious evidence that the ruling on the field was incorrect. It was clear and obvious that the player did not have the ball long enough to clearly become a runner.
Maybe Riveron didn’t say it that way because, for whatever reason, he doesn’t apply it that way. Maybe he simply applies his own judgment to what he sees, regardless of the ruling made by the officials on the field at the site of the game.
For example, Riveron at one point admits that James “does make another move where he’s reaching for pay dirt.” But the question isn’t whether that move means James had the ball long enough to clearly become a runner. The question is whether the ruling on the field that he had the ball long enough to clearly become a runner was clearly and obviously wrong.
That same dynamic applies to Riveron’s assessment that James’ lunge to the goal line was “not necessarily a football move.” That’s fine, but was it clearly and obviously not a football move? Unless the answer to that question is a clear and obvious yes, the ruling on the field should stand.
That’s the standard. That’s the test. And that’s what the NFL desperately needs to get right as soon as possible, especially with the postseason looming.