Skip to main content

Spagnola: Darn It, Just Can't Overturn History


        PLANO, Texas – Saw it with my own two eyes, real time.

        It was a catch!

        Saw it seemingly 100 more times, replay, slow, fast, frame by frame.

        It was a catch!

        Now heard it with my own two ears, live.

        "Yes, Dez caught it!"

        Those were the precise words of Al Riveron, former head referee and now the NFL's senior vice president of officiating, here this weekend with 122 of the league's officials for the annual NFL officiating clinic.

        Man, Al, where were you on Jan. 11, 2015 when the Dallas Cowboys needed you?

        Why weren't you in New York when the Cowboys were in Green Bay, right down there at the Packers 1-yard line, trailing 26-21, with 4:06 left in the fourth quarter?

        The entire perception of the Dallas Cowboys might have been altered, especially for Jason Garrett, who had just won his first playoff game as a head coach the previous weekend – only the second playoff game the Cowboys had won since the 1996 season. Why, the Cowboys might have been just three feet and a couple of minutes away from heading to Seattle for the NFC title game that they certainly would have had more than a puncher's chance of winning since they already had beaten those Seahawks up there during the regular season.

        Remember, Terry Brown, the NFL field judge who was right there at the goal line ruled the 33-yard pass from Tony Romo to Dez Bryant a catch, spotting the ball at the 1-yard line. In his eyes, those no farther away than a yard or two from where he stood on the left sideline, Dez caught the ball. Dez definitely had two feet on the ground. And when the incredibly athletic Bryant took that third step and went diving for the end zone, reaching the ball out, he definitely made an out-of-this-world football move.

        But when he hit the ground with Packers cornerback Sam Shields all over him, the ball popped out, enough gray area for Green Bay's head coach Mike McCarthy to figure, what the heck, might as well take my chances challenging the ruling on the field and see what Dean Blandino, then the NFL's VP of officiating, thinks over there in New York.

        Unfortunately, you know the rest of the miserable story.

        Blandino overruled the call on the field, reversing the decision to an incomplete pass because in his eyes Bryant didn't maintain total control of the ball as he went to the ground. Never mind the field judge had determined at that point Dez was a runner and had been down by contact, meaning the ground could not cause a fumble or incompletion.

        Oh, the angst, since the Cowboys would lose the game, 26-21, and as it turned out, in Romo's final NFL playoff game. So close, yet so far from that first NFC title game since the 1995 season.

        This one, highly controversial play, went a long way toward the NFL competition committee, along with the owners, deciding this spring to further try defining what is and what isn't a catch. The NFL finally realized they needed to get rid of this senseless, on-going controversy.

        "I don't think it was one thing," Riveron said of what caused a more precise definition of what is a catch. "I think we got to a point where fans, the office, coaches, players wanted to see more exciting plays.

        "How do we make this particular play a catch? How do we take the Dez Bryant play and make it a catch and still stay within the rules and the confines? … How do we make it better? How do we get these exciting plays back in the game?

        "And I know we came up with a great rule: Control, two feet, the opportunity to perform a football act, being a reach, being a third step. If you go back and look at it, most of those plays were …"

        Now wait, fasten your seatbelt. Get ready for the rest of that sentence from Al:

        "Being officiated as they are now."


        "So now we're on the same philosophy, the same page, including replay."

        Dang it, Al. You came around three seasons too late … for the Cowboys, for Romo, for Jason Witten, for Garrett, the Joneses, the now retiring DeMarco Murray, for the Cowboys fans and on and on and on. That one single reversal affected so much, so many.

        So now the NFL believes "a catch" has been simplified. No need to overthink:

1.  Control the football.

2.  Two feet down or a body part.

3.  Perform a football act.

"Yes, Dez caught it," Al finished his three-point dissertation on what's truly a catch.

So gotcha, but what's changed then?

"No longer having to go to the ground with the ball during the process of the catch," Riveron said.

And now, if the player who established those three criteria does go to the ground and the ball pops out?

"It's either a fumble or down by contact," Riveron said.

That would mean Dez either was down by contact, since Shields made contact with him as he was coming down with the ball, knowing the ground can't cause a fumble, or – and get this – Dez recovered his own fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.

And to add insult to agony?

When NFL head referee Walt Coleman later asked about the catch rule becoming more definitive, he sort of brushed it off, insisting that's the way they've been officiating it, then adding, "but we get overturned by replay.

"Not a big change for us on the field," Coleman said.

Concurred head referee Ron Tolbert, "We understand the rule."

You know, so did we three years ago. So did we.