By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There’s a difference between being the beneficiary of the way rules are written and being the beneficiary of favorable treatment from the league office. It’s really not that complicated.
Nevertheless, longtime Steelers writer Ed Bouchette insinuated in a column this week that for the Patriots, it is the latter and not the former at play.
“Contrary to popular belief throughout New England, the Patriots do have influence in the offices of the NFL,” Bouchette wrote. “His name is Alberto Riveron, and he is the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating.”
Bouchette states that he is not accusing Riveron of favoritism, yet presents three replay rulings this year that went the Patriots’ way.
It’s an incendiary column geared at placating Steelers fans who remain upset at the fact that Jesse James didn’t make an easy catch on Sunday night, and it calls back Austin Seferian-Jenkins’ fumble at the pylon that led to a Jets turnover in a surprisingly close contest against the Patriots earlier this season. It also referenced Brandin Cooks’ borderline drop of the game-winning touchdown against the Texans in Week 3.
We could take them all one by one, or we could just say this: all three calls were made in line with the rules of the National Football League. Period. Full stop.
None of them involved Riveron ruling for or against any team. The rulings involved Riveron making calls based on the rules.
For James, after he got the ball in his hands, he never took a step, he never turned up field, he never braced himself for contact. In order to become a runner — that is, in order for a receiver to actually possess the football — the NFL rules state he must get both feet on the ground and “is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up field, or taking additional steps.” James accomplished none of those things.
Though the NFL removed the fuzzy term “football move” years ago, it remains a part of the football vernacular. James attempted to make one “football move” with a reach toward the goal line when his feet were touching the ground; in the act of that football move, he dropped the football. He did not catch the football. It was on the ground.
It wasn’t controversial. It was an easy call to overturn. If you’ve ever seen a receiver drop a pass before, you knew this.
One thing about the NFL’s much-ballyhooed “catch rule” is that in order for a catch to actually be a catch, you actually have to catch the football. What a confusing concept.
(There are 11 members of the NFL’s competition committee. Nobody involved with the Patriots is a member. Mike Tomlin, however, is. If the Steelers are upset that proper progress has not been made on “the catch rule,” then they can direct some questions to Tomlin.)
For Seferian-Jenkins, a well-known rule was applied. If you fumble out of the end zone, it’s a touchback and the other team gets the ball. It’s a rule. It applied to the Raiders on Sunday night, and it cost them the right to attempt a chip shot field goal to force overtime. It applied to the Bears earlier this season when Benny Cunningham fumbled through the pylon. It cost the Titans a touchdown this year. Hey look, it also cost the Cardinals a touchdown. Oh, and would you look at that — it cost the Rams a touchdown this year, as well. Fascinating. It cost the Lions a victory on Monday Night Football a couple of years ago. (The officials missed a blatant illegal bat on that play which should have saved the Lions, but did not.)
Disagree with the rule all you’d like, but it is a rule, and it applies to all teams. It only becomes a point of controversy, apparently, when Bill Belichick’s team is involved.
Bouchette also might not be in full understanding of the Seferian-Jenkins ruling, based on what he wrote.
“The Jets and the Steelers were incensed by Riveron taking the touchdowns away,” Bouchette wrote. “Both believe their receivers made ‘football moves’ — a factor in the rule — before losing control of the ball.”
Making a “football move” did not apply to Seferian-Jenkins. He had caught the football, established possession, and became a runner. He was no longer a receiver. Once he lost possession, he never properly regained it before falling out of bounds.
Plus, as mentioned earlier, “football move” is not a part of the NFL rulebook. Ergo, it is not “a factor in the rule.”
On the Cooks touchdown, it does look from one angle that the receiver lost control of the ball, yet he does keep his right forearm cradling the football to some extent. It’s absolutely debatable whether or not he lost control, yet look at this note in the rulebook (Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3):
“If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered a loss of possession. He must lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession.”
Did Cooks fully lose control of the ball, or did it slightly move? That is legitimately a debate. (Though Bouchette found the replay angle convincing enough for a definitive call to have been made.) If the officials on the field ruled the play to have been an incompletion, it probably would have remained an incompletion on replay. But given the lone angle showing the ball slightly moving while Cooks was cradling the ball, the decision was made to stick with the call on the field.
Riveron didn’t make any of these rules. He just enforced them.
One thing that curiously didn’t make it into Bouchette’s column was a recap of a team that actually did benefit from improper officiating in Sunday afternoon’s game. It was a call that was actually made on the field, but was then apparently erased from the memory of everyone in Pittsburgh.
You, however, might remember that when Ben Roethlisberger hit Eli Rogers over the middle for an 18-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown, an official threw a penalty flag because right guard David DeCastro was illegally blocking three yards up the field from the line of scrimmage:
That is against the rules. It was clear as day; that’s why the official threw the penalty flag.
The rulebook states that an ineligible receiver cannot be more than 1 yard down the field on a forward pass. That is why the flag flew.
Yet after the officials huddled briefly, referee Tony Corrente addressed the raucous Pittsburgh crowd and the millions of viewers at home, stating, “There is no foul for an ineligible downfield.”
There was no further explanation. The game broadcast did not show a replay. The Pittsburgh-based reporter who interviewed Corrente after the game did not ask about it. As such, the clear and obvious error by the officials which led to seven points on the board did not become a major point of debate in the hours and days after the game concluded.
In this case, Riveron had nothing to do with the process. The officials on the field decided that, despite a clear foul having been committed, and despite a penalty flag having been thrown for it, they were going to wipe it away.
But, yes, of course, it is the Patriots who receive favorable judgments from the NFL in all matters. (At some point, we should probably mention that the reason “DeflateGate” became a national scandal was in large part due to Alberto Riveron. It remains uncertain whether it was intentionally deceitful behavior by Riveron or whether it was merely ineptitude. But Riveron’s actions the night of the 2014 AFC Championship Game helped launched “DeflateGate” into a full-blown controversy. But that story might not play well with Pittsburgh fans in this instance.)
Bouchette ended the Riveron section of his column with this line: “Of course, if both Seferian-Jenkins and James had clearly held on, Riveron would not have had to overturn those two calls.”
That probably could have just served as the first and last line. Because that’s the entire story.
The intent here is not to necessarily single out Bouchette. Many football writers — in Pittsburgh, based nationally, and everywhere in between — are weighing in on the topic. Certainly, a game of that magnitude and a debate point of that magnitude warrants coverage, and if the same “controversy” were to involve the local team in New England, we’d no doubt be discussing it non-stop. Bouchette used the remainder of his column space to spotlight Mike Tomlin’s and Todd Haley’s inexcusable coaching after the touchdown was reversed. His column was used here simply to avoid the risk of arguing against a straw man.
It’s just that at a certain point, spreading information that’s not fully correct stands in the way of a productive understanding of what took place, and it helps cement certain narratives that are simply wrong. Saying the Patriots have influence in the NFL offices and saying Riveron’s call was an example of the NFL “robbing Jesse James” of a touchdown? It’s disingenuous at best, and it doesn’t help to advance the conversation. It only makes it muddier.