With Thursday night’s game tied at 23, the Patriots had the ball at the Minnesota six. It was third and goal.
Tight end Hunter Henry caught the ball at the goal line and reached it across before hitting the ground. He lost possession of the ball and then finished the catch in the field of play.
The official near the action ruled that it was a touchdown. The question on replay review became whether Henry kept possession after hitting the ground. NFL senior VP of officiating Walt Anderson, who handles all replay-review questions, ruled that the ball struck the ground when Henry landed, making it an incomplete pass.
After the game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters, “Why don’t you guys go to them with your pool reporter and ask them about the play? Isn’t that what you do?“
Indeed it is. And indeed they did.
Here’s how Anderson explained the decision to pool reporter Mike Reiss of ESPN.com: “He was going to the ground, the ball ended up touching the ground and then he lost control of the ball in his hands.”
Why wasn’t Henry ruled to have possession before the ball hit the ground?
“Because as he’s going to the ground, he has to maintain control of the ball upon contacting the ground,” Anderson said. “The term that’s commonly used is ‘surviving the ground.’ A lot of people refer to that. So, as he’s going to the ground, he has the elements of two feet and control, but because he’s going to the ground, he has to maintain control of the ball when he does go to the ground.”
As Reiss pointed out to Anderson, Henry had two hands on the ball.
“Well, if he had maintained control of the ball with two hands, even if the ball were to touch the ground, if you don’t lose control of the ball after it touches the ground, that would still be a catch.”
The decision raises an interesting question as to the application of the “clear and obvious” standard. The ruling on the field was a catch for a touchdown. For replay review, here’s the proper question: Was the ruling on the field clearly and obviously wrong?
There are two separate components to the “clear and obvious” standard in this case. It was indeed clear and obvious that Henry lost possession when he landed and re-secured possession short of the end zone. That would have given New England the ball on the one-inch line, fourth and goal.
But was it clear and obvious that the ball struck the ground and moved sufficiently to make it not a catch at all?
Remember, reversals are supposed to happen only when it’s clear and obvious. Fifty drunks in a bar would have to agree, as it’s often described.
In this case, it seems clear and obvious that it wasn’t a touchdown. But it doesn’t seem clear and obvious that it wasn’t a catch; Henry’s hand was at all times under the ball. Thus, New England arguably should have had the ball just outside the Minnesota end zone, fourth and goal.
While it’s possible that the Patriots would have opted for the field goal and the 26-23 lead, the Patriots may have chosen to try to punch it in for a touchdown. If the process had been true to the “50 drunks in a bar” standard, the Patriots should have had that option.