I realize this article will deal in nothing but hypothetical situations, but this is early July, and Steelers training camp is still weeks away.
Anyway, a number of years ago, in the name of player safety, the NFL made a rule which specified that a play automatically was blown dead at the second when a ball carrier’s helmet came completely off.
Makes sense, right? After all, player safety should be first and foremost as it pertains to the future and the survival of the NFL. But like a lot of rule implementations, I’ll bet the league never could have predicted how the lost-helmet rule would be applied in certain situations.
Speaking of situations, allow me to take you back to a place in time when the Steelers were mediocre, but so was the AFC’s entire field of playoff contenders. That place in time was November 28, 2013, and the Steelers (5-6) were trailing the Ravens, 22-14, late in a critical Thanksgiving night game at M&T Bank Stadium.
With precious little time remaining, Pittsburgh had marched to the Ravens’ 2-yard line, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger handed the football to rookie running back Le’Veon Bell.
In what would become a hallmark of his All-Pro career, Bell demonstrated great patience as he navigated his way to pay-dirt. Right before Bell reached the goal line, he was met by two Baltimore defenders; one of those defenders hit Bell’s helmet with his own, causing No. 26’s helmet to fly off as he fell into the end zone for an apparent touchdown.
As Bell lay prone on the turf with an obvious concussion, tight end Heath Miller shooed the cameraman away while the rest of Bell’s teammates and the fans at home showed great concern for his well-being, as did many fans at home.
But while Bell was being attended to by trainers and team physicians, the officials were reviewing the previous play (all touchdowns are automatically reviewed). Upon further inspection, it was determined that, based on the NFL’s lost-helmet rule, Bell’s touchdown did not count.
Why? Because Bell’s helmet came off before the football crossed the plane of the goal line.
Did this make sense logically? Did the application of the lost-helmet rule pass the eye test?
No and no, but that never stopped the NFL from applying certain rules from a black-and- white perspective.
The Steelers eventually did make it 22-20 on a one-yard touchdown catch by receiver Jerricho Cotchery with 1:03 remaining.
Obviously, with so little time left, Pittsburgh was forced to go for two points, an attempt that was unsuccessful when receiver Emmanuel Sanders — who everyone really did hate at that time because he wasn’t the Patriots 2013 third-round draft pick — failed to make what would have been a fairly tough catch (if we’re being honest).
The Steelers lost to fall to 5-7 and went on to narrowly miss the playoffs with an 8-8 record.
It was said at the time that the original plan following Bell’s touchdown was to use the Cotchery play for the two-point attempt, making one wonder if the Steelers’ season would have turned out differently had Bell’s score not been reversed.
I guess we’ll never know.
Speaking of hypothetical situations that we’ll never know the answer to, fast-forward to last December and the final seconds of the Steelers’ pivotal, Week-15 matchup against the Patriots at Heinz Field.
A number of years ago, the NFL revamped its concept of an official catch, totally taking the judgment of the officials out of the equation. Makes sense, right? After all, getting it right is the main thing. But like a lot of rule implementations, you can bet the league never could have predicted how the rule would be applied in certain situations.
And that brings me back to Week 15 of last year and those final seconds of that aforementioned, pivotal matchup against New England.
Following some catch-and-run heroics by rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster that should have, by rights, placed him forever in Steelers lore, Roethlisberger appeared to hit tight end Jesse James for a 10-yard, go-ahead touchdown with just 28 seconds left.
But while the CBS announcing crew of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo were going on and on about what had just happened, Al Riveron, the league’s Senior Vice President of Officiating, and a man the entire NFL fan base would quickly grow to hate (well, except for the people in the New England area), was reviewing the play (all touchdowns are automatically reviewed). Upon further inspection, it was determined that, despite appearing to cross the plane of the goal line with ball in hand(s), James did not complete the catch as he hit the turf.
As the game-day official put it while reversing the call, James “Did not survive the ground.”
Did this make sense logically? Did the application of the catch-rule pass the eye test?
No and no, but......you get my drift.
The Steelers lost the game and the No. 1 seed and.......
Now for that hypothetical.
Let’s say James did everything he did on that play; he caught the ball while dropping to one knee, before getting up to dive over the goal line.
What if, right after he crossed the goal line while stretching the football out with both hands, James was popped in the head, forcing his helmet to fly completely off. Right at that point, and before he could even get to the ground to not survive it, the play theoretically would have been blown dead, right?
If the rule was applied in exactly the same manner as it was on the Bell play from 2013, James would have been awarded a touchdown.
Why? Because once the football crosses the plane, it's a touchdown, and once a player’s helmet comes off, the play is dead.
I know, mind = blown, right?
What’s my point in all of this?
Only that some NFL rules can be silly when you try to apply them according to the letter of the rulebook.