By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Super Bowl is over, and the Patriots lost. Everybody understands this. Nobody in New England really has an issue with it. (Why didn’t Malcolm Butler play, though? Is anyone talking about that?)
But in trying to “fix” the rules regarding what is and what is not a catch, the NFL may have inadvertently admitted that it improperly applied some rules when the Eagles beat the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
Here’s a timeline:
Feb. 4, 2018: Super Bowl, Third Quarter, 7:18
Corey Clement catches a 22-yard pass that was perfectly dropped to the back of the end zone by Nick Foles, right over Marquis Flowers and Devin McCourty. The ruling on the field called it a completed catch for a touchdown, which gave Philadelphia a 29-19 lead. The play was automatically reviewed and was upheld.
Referee Gene Steratore, who was mic’d up for the game, said this when explaining the decision to another official, said this: “It sticks here and then it goes there, but he never loses control. Is there a little ball movement? Yes. But that does not deem loss of control. You know? It goes from here, sticks on the forearm, right back to the hand, touchdown.”
Feb. 4, 2018: Super Bowl, Fourth Quarter, 2:21
Tight end Zach Ertz beats Devin McCourty in single coverage, catching a pass on a slant route, taking three steps with possession, and leaping over the goal line for a touchdown which gave Philadelphia a 38-33 lead. The play was also automatically reviewed, and because Ertz lost possession upon hitting the ground, it raised some eyebrows. However, it was clear that Ertz had established himself as a runner before losing possession, and the score was upheld after the review.
March 27, 2018: NFL owners unanimously pass the “new” catch rule.
As part of the explanation process of the “new” catch rule, the NFL displays a number of plays which were previously ruled incompletions that would now qualify as completions under the new language. The Jesse James incompletion for Pittsburgh against New England as well as Dez Bryant’s incompletion against Green Bay from several years ago are the most high-profile of the bunch. It’s considered a win for the NFL to have “clarified” the catch rule, though some questions remain about whether the problem has really been solved.
March 27, 2018: Alberto Riveron tells ESPN that the new rules were applied during the Super Bowl, before they had been formally approved
This is where things go a bit haywire.
Marcus Mosher from Bleacher Report shared this tidbit from ESPN’s “NFL Live” program:
ESPN’s Dianna Russini then shared a video of Tim Hasselbeck’s reaction to what Sal Paolantonio reported:
NESN’s Zack Cox found exactly what Paolantonio said. The message was pretty clear:
“I talked to Al Riveron after the press conference — the vice president of officiating — and it was pretty clear to me that it was already in place when they ruled on the Zach Ertz catch for the touchdown and the Corey Clement catch for a touchdown. When [Riveron] had these conversations, he was in New York, with Troy Vincent sitting next to him, with Gene Steratore the referee on the field. They were having that conversation, and they were basically legislating on the fly during the Super Bowl. And now we’ve seen it enacted unanimously by the owners.”
That is … interesting.
It’s especially interesting because the Ertz touchdown was very clear. The changes to the catch rule don’t really apply to that play, because Ertz very clearly had possession of the football long enough to be considered a runner. The process of the catch had long been completed before Ertz crossed the goal line. If Riveron did indeed tell Paolantonio that the “new” rule was applied for that play, then Riveron is not displaying a great understanding of the rule.
The Clement touchdown likely opens up another can of worms, especially because NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent seemingly said last week that the touchdown should not have counted under the “old” catch rule. Now you have the head of officiating telling a reporter that the league was applying a new rule — a rule which had yet to be approved and put into place — in the Super Bowl. That’s noteworthy.
March 28, 2018: Sal Paolantonio discusses new catch rule on ESPN Radio
In the past when an ESPN talking head has said something that makes the league look bad, we’ve seen that person do a quick 180 and then oddly start defending the league over the same exact matter. Paolantonio did not do that here.
Here’s a back-and-forth Paolantonio had with Trey Wingo on Wednesday morning.
PAOLANTONIO: “For all intents and purposes, Trey, they were put into practice during the postseason, and the two catches during the Super Bowl were a great illustration of that. This is not conjecture. This is not rumor. This is based on reporting that Chris Mortensen and I have done. Mort has talked to people in the league office, I have talked on the record to Troy Vincent, chief of game operations, and to Al Riveron, the VP of officiating. And both of them told me that in the postseason they wanted to make sure that they didn’t have a repeat of embarrassing moments that happened during the regular season. And they basically were going to legislate during the postseason what they planned to put into place in writing after the season was over. And that was, ‘Let’s not take points off the board, let’s not disallow touchdowns if we can clearly show on the field and then through visual evidence, that it was a catch, based on what we believe a catch is and should be.‘
“Corey Clement is a catch. Nick Foles to Corey Clement in the back of the end zone is a catch. All you have to do – and this is what started my reporting – I’m watching the [Sound FX], the brilliant piece put together by NFL Films, I’m watching it, and I’m watching and listening to Gene Steratore … talk with Al Riveron after the Corey Clement catch. You can’t hear Riveron’s side of the story, but you can hear Steratore say to Riveron, ‘Listen, he has control of the football, even though the football moves, isn’t that a catch? That’s a catch.’ And then Steratore gets the affirmative from Riveron, and that is a catch. And clearly, that would not have been a catch during the regular season. All you have to do is go back to the Jets’ tight end [Austin Seferian-Jenkins] who was disallowed twice.”
TREY WINGO: “That’s an amazing thing, that they decided to change the way you legislate a game in the biggest game of the year when it wasn’t a rule yet. I just don’t see how they can just go ahead and do that.”
PAOLANTONIO: “Well, they did it.”
Quickly, unpacking this here: Paolantonio is reporting, based on conversations with the people in charge, that significant plays in the Super Bowl were officiated based on what those people “believe” should be the rule, not what the rule actually stated.
Paolantonio also adds to the confusion by referencing Seferian-Jenkins, whose fumble at the pylon against the Patriots was a high-profile matter but did not involve a catch. Seferian-Jenkins was a runner, clearly. He lost possession while falling out of bounds and never regained it inbounds, hence the touchback call. Referencing this play does nothing to help the public understand the rules.
Moving on, Paolantonio also said that “there really isn’t much difference at all between Ertz and Jesse James and Dez Bryant.” That’s also not true at all. James took zero steps before losing control of the football upon impacting the ground. Bryant’s was a bit more ambiguous, but his “steps” were more the result of him falling to the ground after leaping in the air. Ertz caught a pass with his feet on the ground, ran for three steps, then jumped into the end zone. The three plays are not even remotely similar.
Wingo pushed back on the comparison of Ertz to James or Bryant but then refocused the conversation on what Paolantonio was reporting.
WINGO: “I have no pony in the race here when it comes to Super Bowl 52, but based on the rule that was used all year long, the Corey Clement play in any other game would have been an incomplete pass, and they just decided to [say], ’Well let’s just change it.’ That’s a tough pill for a lot of people to swallow today.
PAOLANTONIO: “Common sense sometimes bubbles to the surface.”
WINGO: “Well that’s wonderful! And I’m glad that common sense is wonderful going forward. But you can’t change a rule if it’s not a rule.”
PAOLANTONIO: “Yeah, don’t shoot the messenger here. Mort and I are just reporting the story.”
WINGO: “I’m with you. It’s just unbelievable to me that they just decided to go ahead and do that in the biggest championship in team sports in this country.”
Also on Wednesday morning, Riveron said at a press confernce that what Paolantonio reported was not accurate.
“No, we did not,” Riveron said when asked if the league applied “new” rules during the Super Bowl. “In order for us to overturn a call, we have to see clearly indisputable evidence. And there was some slight movement, but we didn’t see loss of control, we didn’t see indisputable evidence that he did not have possession of the football.”
That’s obviously a direct contradiction to what Paolantonio reported. So the end result is a jumbled mess of a story.
It really is a pretty significant development (relatively speaking), and it probably should become a pretty big story. It likely won’t.
Now, the reaction from many New England fans involved a flipping of the script: “If those calls, plus the non-penalty on the trick play to Nick Foles, were ruled FOR the Patriots instead of AGAINST the Patriots, then the whole country would be freaking out and applying asterisks to the Super Bowl victory! This is not fair!”
That’s pretty close to being 100 percent accurate. But it’s probably not worth starting a riot. Such is the case when your favorite team is the most successful franchise in the salary cap era and arguably of all time. People around the country, by and large, hate the Patriots. So they’re not going to protest if some things go against them. That’s just a reality. Chalk it up to being a cost of success. (And nobody should ever desire to become like the Raiders’ fanbase, which has been complaining about the correct application of The Tuck Rule for nearly two full decades. Don’t be like them. Be better than The Gap. Be better. Than The Gap.)
Still, the league doesn’t look good at all here, and someone (or some people) should be held accountable. It’s likely that nobody will, as accountability is not a strong suit of the folks working at 345 Park Ave. That’s a time-honored tradition that we’ve seen on a grand scale with Ray Rice, DeflateGate, the acknowledgment of brain trauma, Ezekiel Elliott, Colin Kaepernick — and that’s only in the past four years. Don’t hold your breath for anybody to come forward and clear this up.
In saying that “new” rules applied on the Ertz touchdown, Riveron displayed a poor understanding of the rules. Considering he’s a former referee, that probably shouldn’t be the case?
In saying that “new” rules applied on the Clement touchdown, the NFL is saying it relied on “common sense” instead of the rulebook. As those of us who followed the deflated football nonsense for three years, we know beyond a doubt that the league is not ever guided by “common sense.” In fact, here’s a direct quote from commissioner Roger Goodell:
“Our rules apply to everybody. They apply to every single player. And every single player expects those rules to apply to everybody. Every coach does, every fan does, every partner, every team does. So our rules and the integrity of our game aren’t because someone’s popular or somebody’s a Super Bowl champ or not. They’re to be applied evenly. Our teams expect that, and that’s our job. That’s our responsibility. That’s my job.“
More from Roger:
“That’s the core of the issue, is protecting the integrity of the game and making sure that the game is played within the rules. We’re a game of rules, and the rules need to be followed by everyone. The number one objective there is to make sure that those rules are being followed.”
The rules matter. Except when they don’t. Welcome to the NFL, where the more things change, the more everything remains the same.