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 across before hitting the ground. He lost possession and then completed the catch in the field of play.
The official near the action ruled it a touchdown. The issue on replay review was whether Henry retained possession 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?“
It must be safe. And indeed they did.
Here’s how Anderson explained the decision to pool reporter Mike Reiss of ESPN.com: “He went 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 when he goes to ground, he has to maintain control of the ball when he makes contact with the ground,” Anderson said. “The term that is often used is ‘surviving the ground.’ Many refer to it. 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 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 kept 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, it would still be a catch.”
The decision raises an interesting question about the application of the “clear and obvious” standard. The feeling on the field was a tick for a touchdown. For replay review, here’s the right question: Was the on-field ruling 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 secured possession again 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 sufficiently that it was not caught at all?
Remember that reversals should only happen when it is clear and obvious. Fifty drunks in a bar must agree, as is often described.
In this case, it seems clear and obvious that it was not a touchdown. But it doesn’t seem clear and obvious that it wasn’t a catch; Henry’s hand was constantly 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 the Patriots would have opted for the field goal and the lead 26-23, the Patriots might have opted to try to run 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.