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 got it across before hitting the ground. He lost possession and then completed the catch in the box.
The official near the action ruled it a touchdown. The issue on replay review was whether Henry retained possession of the ball after hitting the ground. NFL senior VP of officiating Walt Anderson, who handles all replay-review matters, ruled that the ball hit the ground when Henry landed, making it an incomplete pass.
After the game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters, “Why don’t you go to them with your pool reporter and ask them about the play? Isn’t that what you do?“
Indeed. 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 charged with possession before the ball hit the ground?
“Because when he goes to the ground, he has to maintain control of the ball when he makes contact with the ground,” Anderson said. “The phrase that’s commonly used is ‘surviving the ground.’ A lot of people refer to that. So when he goes to the ground, he has the elements of two feet and control, but because he goes to the ground, he has to to maintain control of the ball when he goes 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 though the ball was going to touch the ground, if you don’t lose control of the ball after it touched the ground, it would still be a catch.”
The decision raises an interesting question about 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 real 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. Indeed, it was clear and obvious that Henry lost possession when he touched down and regained possession short of the end zone. That would have given New England the ball at the one-inch line, fourth and goal.
But was it clear and obvious that the ball hit the ground and moved enough that it didn’t catch at all?
Remember that chargebacks should only be made when it is clear and obvious. Fifty alcoholics in a bar would agree, as is often described.
In this case, it seems clear and obvious that it was not a touchdown. But it does not seem clear and obvious that it was not a catch; Henry’s hand was under the ball the whole time. With that, New England arguably should have had the ball just outside the Minnesota end zone, fourth and goal.
While it’s possible the Patriots would have gone for the field goal and lead 26-23, 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.