So, let’s take a minute and forget about all the things—the wanton violence, the league’s wholly arbitrary judicial system, the over-proliferation of penalties, the four-hour run-times, and, for a large contingent of the league’s viewing public, the politically-divisive anthem demonstrations—that have ostensibly reduced the NFL’s overall popularity this season. On Sunday, the result of what was preliminarily billed as the “game of the season” last March was essentially decided by how a group of referees adjudicated the league’s mysterious and increasingly-byzantine “catch rule.”
With fewer than 30 seconds remaining in a game which to that point had been as good as advertised, Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James scored what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown, a score that would have given the Steelers their first victory over the New England Patriots since 2011. As James secured the ball and broke the plane of the end zone, he fell toward the ground, causing the ball to shift slightly-yet-noticeably in his right hand.
The slightness of the shift was effectively corroborated moments later during the requisite booth review. The fact that a review occurred at all confounded Jim Nantz, a 30-year broadcast veteran, and Tony Romo, a 14-year NFL veteran, both of whom initially indicated that the purpose of the review was to determine if Patriots safety Duron Harmon made contact with James before James tumbled into the end zone. It wasn’t until maybe 60 seconds into the replay that Romo noticed the ball move in James’ hand, and in the process provided the viewing audience with some stomach-churning intel: this catch wasn’t gonna stand.
Shortly thereafter—and to the surprise of absolutely no one—the catch was ruled incomplete, which is an important distinction because it means that the officials overturned the touchdown. I’m certainly no rules expert, but my understanding is that the burden of proof for actually overturning a call on the field is substantially greater than simply confirming the call; or, more specifically, allowing the call “to stand.” Call this the cathartic wailing of a troubled Steelers fan, but I did not see any evidence on that particular replay that was strong enough to overrule the decision made on the field.
The best, most precise dissenting opinion I can come up with is that maybe James’ hand wasn’t under the ball, in which case he absolutely did not control the football, and thus overturning the catch was the correct call. But his hand sure did look like it was trapped beneath that football, and any time “maybe” enters the lexicon, certainty is diminished and locating conclusive evidence becomes impossible. I think the officials got the call wrong, and that likely cost Pittsburgh a chance at securing home-field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs. Thus, the seemingly inevitable New England-Pittsburgh redux will be played at Gillette Stadium, all because of an archaic catch rule that demands on overhaul.
I’ll just touch on a few of the contrarian opinions to get them out of the way:
-Sean Davis should’ve intercepted Brady on the previous drive, which would’ve ended the game and eliminated this horrendous outcome. So true, and I’ll get to Davis in a minute. But the league still needs to change the catch rule, because it sucks.
-Ben shouldn’t have thrown such an awful pass two plays later. The Steelers didn’t lose because of James’ touchdown being overturned; they lost because of their own mistake. The Steelers wouldn’t have needed to run another play if the league’s catch rule didn’t suck.
-Even if the touchdown would’ve stood as called, Tom Brady still would’ve had time on the clock to march down the length of the field and win the game anyway. This one is actually way true.
-Maybe the officials just appreciate irony. It isn’t often you get to say that Jesse James was the one who got robbed. Good point.
The Steelers have now been victimized by a longstanding rulebook peculiarity that has cheated other teams of victories (Dez Bryant caught that football, and you will never convince me otherwise). And while a startling contingent of Patriots fans are now, for the time being, zealous defenders of the league’s rulebook, you have to imagine that rational NFL fans are kind of over this whole was it a catch nonsense. Will this prompt the NFL to reevaluate its policies? Not likely.
The weeks ahead: Stock up
Antonio Brown is hurt, Rob Gronkowski had, like, a million receiving yards, and the Steelers lost their sixth straight game against the Patriots. While those aspects are objectively not awesome, they don’t really capture the totality of Sunday’s result. Ben Roethlisberger played perhaps his sharpest game of the season, going 22-29 for 281 yards and two touchdowns before throwing a game-ending interception on the final play of the game (a play that was, retrospectively speaking, poorly-designed and doomed from the start). The secondary had a better performance than pretty much anybody expected. Todd Haley, a man who probably takes more flak than he really deserves, called his best game of the season, adjusting Pittsburgh’s game plan on the fly after losing Brown in the first quarter. The defense, meanwhile, proved for the most part that it can be serviceable without Ryan Shazier. Should the Steelers and Patriots meet again in the playoffs, both Brown and starting cornerback Joe Haden should be back in the mix. Sunday’s loss was a disappointing one, but an encouraging one nonetheless.
Of course, it should be noted that losing to New England totally throws a wrench in Pittsburgh’s “rest of season” plans. The Steelers needed a win Sunday to guarantee a first-round bye and presumably ensure that the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC travels through Pittsburgh. More importantly, the Steelers could’ve used next week’s game as somewhat of a practice session before resting their starters completely in Week 17. Now, in order to fend off Jacksonville (who owns a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Steelers), Pittsburgh probably needs to play everyone in an effort to win-out and secure the No. 2 seed.
Martavis Bryant and Juju Smith-Schuster: Stock up
The Steelers cannot replace Antonio Brown by any stretch of the imagination (he was a viable MVP candidate for a reason), but Bryant and Smith-Schuster should be fitting proxies in his stead. Smith-Schuster made what should have been the play of the season by parlaying a 10-yard slant route into a field-flipping 69-yard gain that should have given the Steelers the chance to at least tie the game with under a minute left in regulation. Bryant, meanwhile, made two of the best catches of his career; a diving 39-yard catch near the sideline on a go-route and a one-handed four-yard touchdown touch with Stephon Gilmore clinging to his left arm like a timid third-grader. Both players should emerge as primary targets during the next two weeks. Bryant and Smith-Schuster also did this, which might very well be the best celebration of the season:
Sean Davis: Stock down
Defending Gronk is a tall order, and Davis was clearly not up to the task. To be fair, though, this isn’t all on Davis. Placing Davis on an island against Gronk, the football version of Shaq, does not strike me as a particularly keen personnel decision. Davis also should have ended the game with an interception on the Patriots’ final drive, and the NFL is probably so, so upset that he didn’t.
People named Cameron: Stock up
The coaching staff, recognizing that Coty Sensabaugh is merely a caricature of a real football player, decided to give Cameron Sutton a shot at outside cornerback opposite Artie Burns. Sutton will presumably occupy a similar role in the weeks ahead (at least until Joe Haden gets fully healthy). Cameron Heyward, meanwhile, collected his 10th sack of the year, becoming the first player in the Keith Butler era to post double-digit sacks in a single season.
Vince Williams: Stock up
Vince is responsible for the first Steelers interception against Tom Brady since the Bush administration. He celebrated as such:
Fnck it Ima killer B now— Bince Williams (@VinnyVidiVici98) December 19, 2017
Ben Roethlisberger retirement index
If Roethlisberger continues to play at his current level, the Steelers can overcome the loss of Antonio Brown and the recent deficiencies that have plagued the defense. His interception was ugly, but the Steelers wouldn’t have been in position to win that game had it not been for his heroics. If Roethlisberger does retire this off-season, he will be doing so at the peak of his powers.