Was it a Catch?

By Colin Reno | USA

In the crucial December 18th match-up between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers, fans were given an amazing game from kickoff to the very last drive. This exhibition featured the two best records in the AFC, fighting for position of the number one seed in the conference and rights to home field advantage throughout the upcoming playoffs. The Patriots were up 27-24 after scoring on the previous drive, the Steelers were given the ball back with 51 seconds left on the game clock. After a 69-yard reception from QB Roethlisberger to WR Smith-Schuster, Roethlisberger attempted to a pass to TE Jesse James on the edge of the goal line. James left his feet to catch the ball, as he came down to the turf, he attempted to stretch the ball across the goal line. The play was ruled a touchdown, but later overturned due to a challenge replay. Roethlisberger attempted a short pass to WR Hayward-Bay for a 3-yard gain on the next snap. The Steelers were forced to go “no huddle” with 9 seconds left, with no time-outs in the half. Roethlisberger then attempted a “fake spike” to catch the defense off-guard. The ball was thrown towards WR Rodgers, but was tipped into the air by Patriots’ CB Rowe, later intercepted by CB Harmon. After one final snap by the Patriots’ offense, New England emerged victorious.

The great Vince Lombardi once said, “Football is a game of inches and inches make the champion.” This held very true on Monday night when the game was ruled in favor of the Patriots by a mere inch. As Steelers’ TE Jesse James stretched his arms across the goal line, the tip of the ball fell out of his hands and skimmed the turf and was ruled an incomplete pass by officials. This ruling has had the league in flames, but what many people do not know is the true definition of a “catch”. Article 3 of the NFL’s official rule book, a player must “a) secure control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; b) and touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and c) maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has the ball long enough to clearly become a runner. A player has the ball long enough to become a runner when, after his second foot is on the ground, he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning upfield, or taking additional steps.” Player Jesse James never fulfilled part (c) of the league’s constitution of a catch. By leaving his feet to attempt a play at the ball, James was never able to become a “runner”, thus factoring in a new amendment in the rule, nicknamed the “Calvin Johnson Rule”. This amendment states “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. If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body to the ground, it is not a catch.” Since James attempted to stretch his arms across the goal line while not being an eligible runner, once the tip of the ball hits the turf the play is dead and the pass is considered incomplete.

This one ruling may have cost Pittsburgh “home field advantage”, which could end up being a crucial factor late in the playoffs. Instead of playing in Heinz Field, one of the rowdiest stadiums in the league, the Steelers could possibly be taking a trip up north to Foxborough to take on the Patriots in a rematch that many are anticipating to be the AFC Championship game. Since 2002, New England has had an NFL’s best 118-23 record at home. Playing 573 miles north could end up costing Pittsburgh a trip to the Super Bowl, which would leave Steelers fans – and football fans alike – wondering, “What if Jesse James scored?”.