IRVING, Texas – As he closed out his Wednesday afternoon press conference, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett was asked a very simple question.
Was it a catch?
His answer summed up exactly where the Cowboys stand 11 months after "The Play" in last year's NFC divisional playoffs.
"What play are you referring to?" he asked.
Garrett obviously knew exactly which play was being referred to – as did every reporter who laughed at his response. The play in question is something everyone associated with the Cowboys organization is ready to forget, but can't stop thinking about.
Trailing the Packers, 26-21, on a crucial 4th-and-2 in the fourth quarter last January, Tony Romo lofted a prayer to Dez Bryant, who appeared to haul in a game-changing 31-yard reception near the Green Bay goal line.
As is now part of NFL lore, the catch was challenged by Packers coach Mike McCarthy and eventually overturned. The Cowboys turned the ball over on downs and were subsequently knocked out of the playoffs.
"We certainly will remember that game for a long, long time," Garrett said. "But I remember a lot of games, both good and bad for a long time as does everybody who's involved in something like this and is invested as much as we are."
The loss is undoubtedly a part of Cowboys history – and NFL history in general. But there's no denying that the storyline has been hashed and rehashed in the months since. Bryant has been asked about it repeatedly, and Tony Romo famously addressed it on his Twitter page in May: https://twitter.com/tonyromo/status/599325409155637248
Even in the immediate aftermath of the Cowboys' 19-16 win at Washington on Monday, Bryant was immediately asked for his thoughts on this weekend's return to Lambeau Field.
"I can't wait, man. I've got that catch behind me, it's behind me. It's nothing that I can do," he said. "Why dwell on it? You can't dwell on something that you can't change, so it is what it is."
Not surprisingly, that's a sentiment that was echoed throughout Valley Ranch on Wednesday, when preparations for this weekend's game began in earnest. Jeremy Mincey, who had five tackles and a sack in the playoff loss, said it took him about two hours to move on – repeating Bryant's point that the past is the past.
"Watching the film I had a few little flashbacks, knowing that we was just one play away was definitely frustrating. But it is what it is," Mincey said. "We lost in other phases – that's why we lost the game. It wasn't just a touchdown."
The reminder remains on an almost-weekly basis, though. Every time the NFL's oft-criticized catch rule is reviewed – which has happened numerous times this season – images of Bryant reaching for the Packers end zone spring to mind.
The play was even enough to prompt the league to update the language of the catch rule:
"A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:
- secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
- touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
- maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has clearly become a runner (see 3-2-7 Item 2)."
Whether that's a satisfactory change probably depends on who you ask.
"I mean, the rule said it wasn't a catch. You don't always agree with the rules, but that's the rule," said Aaron Rodgers on Wednesday.
In a fairly telling instance, McCarthy and Garrett deviated wildly when asked about whether the rule is explained in a satisfactory manner. McCarthy, whose challenge successfully overturned Dez's effort, said he felt good about the rule.
"I'm in tune with what the rule is. Dez's play in the playoff was a great, athletic play. But as the rule is written – that's obviously why I challenged it," he said. "It's something that has created a lot of conversation, and I'm sure the NFL will continue to work on it to make it more clear for everybody."
Garrett deserves credit for his diplomatic approach, but his more nuanced response to the same question was an excellent indicator of his true opinion.
"I want to be measured in my response here," he said. "I think we have to continue to make an effort as a league to clarify what a catch is, and how we write the rules and how we interpret the rules and how we explain the rules based on what happens week in and week out in the NFL. It's not an easy thing, I know the league is working hard on getting this right."
It's a debate that will rage on, regardless of whether or not the rule changes, and it's a memory that will never fade – not just for those involved, but for legions of fans around the world. The Cowboys' quarterback for this week's trip to Lambeau, Matt Cassel, had a vivid memory of the game, and he wasn't even a member of the team yet.
"I definitely remember watching it," he said. "I'd say I definitely think it was a catch. But at the same time, hopefully I don't get fined for that. It's just my opinion."
That's pretty much what it comes down to – differing opinions. There'll be many who always see "The Play" as a catch, and others who disagree. The ambiguity will make it the stuff of NFL legend for decades to come.
As Garrett himself was quick to point out, though, it won't have any bearing on what happens this weekend – regardless of how much it's discussed.
"It really doesn't have a whole lot to do with this season, to be honest with you," he said. "Different teams will be playing this Sunday up there in Green Bay and we're going to prepare each day this week to put our best foot forward in that game."