American Football: rule book rows steal magic from epic matches

Feeling prevails that too many games are being decided by video replay

Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant waits for a replay of his spectacular catch late in the fourth quarter against Green Bay Packers. Photograph: Rob Carr/Getty Image.

Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant waits for a replay of his spectacular catch late in the fourth quarter against Green Bay Packers. Photograph: Rob Carr/Getty Image.

 

In America, they love to give seminal sporting moments these pseudo-historic titles. The Ice Bowl. The Drive. The Fumble. The shot heard round the world. Within hours of NFL officials ruling that the Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant’s breathtakingly acrobatic catch against the Green Bay Packers last Sunday was not actually a catch, the episode had already entered the sports lexicon as ‘The Reversal’.

A very apt description of what happened when referee Gene Steratore watched a slow-motion video replay, consulted extensively with league officials in New York, and decided Bryant had not maintained possession of the ball as it popped out when he hit the ground. Instead of being one yard from the Packers’ endzone and seemingly set to score, the Cowboys lost possession and the match. But, the argument grows, it is the sport that may be losing a whole lot more.

For the second time in as many weeks, the NFL community was ruing the fact referees were making more headlines than players. Instead of celebrating the way in which Bryant somehow contorted his body in a feat of supreme athleticism, the focus is on how too many games are being decided by video replay with even the judgments being rendered in an inaccessible form of legalese.

Maintain possession

When the airwaves are full of experts and pretend experts trying to figure out the meaning and interpretation of what constitutes “a football act” (the player must make a move while in possession apparently), something is seriously wrong. That every NFL broadcast team now includes a former referee on hand to explain the rules is also indicative of how the league has lost its way.

Although, tellingly, all the former refs turned pundits felt Steratore made a grammatically correct decision, there is a consensus too that this may be an instance of the old cliché about bad law making for hard cases. Perhaps the one positive from the debacle is that the conspiracy theories that abounded after officials ridiculously favoured the Cowboys against the Detroit Lions last week have now been put to bed.

The amazing thing about the events at Lambeau Field though is that it marked the second time in two days that an epic NFL play-off was somewhat overshadowed by a debate about arcane rules. In the third quarter of his team’s 35-31 victory over the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium on Saturday, the New England Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick set his players up in an offensive formation so rare that the opponents and many of those watching were convinced it was illegal.

Deploying an obscure stratagem used earlier this season by a college coach with whom he is close, Belichick had tight end Michael Hoomanawanui lining up as left tackle. Playing a role where the job is usually just to protect the quarterback, Hoomanawanui declared himself an eligible receiver and caught the ball for a crucial 14 yard gain.

Unconventional play

“Maybe those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out,” said Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady of the Ravens’ complaints.

The NFL’s problem may be that, these days, too many people are spending too much time studying the rule book.

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