Like a crazy person, I’ve been screaming –– for years –– that the NFL splits too many flippin’ hairs now, which does nothing but slow down games a ton, which, especially for fans of teams that may finally be gaining offensive momentum, can be infuriating.
“If you don’t hand the ball to the referee after you get tackled,” I’ve groused, “it should be a fumble.”
Of course I’m exaggerating to make a point: that if a ball carrier’s knee, elbow, mouthpiece, whatever touches the turf around the time the pigskin tumbles from him, it should be deemed a fumble. Just to keep things moving right along.
Yesterday during the Packers’ 26-21 victory over the Cowboys in Green Bay the National Football Lawyers dived really deep into the arcana of their rulebook to overturn what anyone with common sense (read: non-lawyers) could see was a clear catch. On 4th and 2 with just under five minutes left to play, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo hit all-pro wide receiver Dez Bryant on a 31-yard bomb that would have resulted in a first down at the Packers’ goal line and, with the way the Cowboys’ offensive was humming, probably a touchdown eventually. The ref standing right there said the catch was good, and the replays, from every conceivable angle, seemed to indicate that Bryant, after soaring over a defensive back, had control of the ball when he stretched it out on his way to the ground. A bobble, albeit a tiny one, inspired Green Bay coach to Mike McCarthy to launch his challenge flag.
You heard it all last week, after the officials picked up a P.I. flag against Dallas that would have resulted in a first down for Detroit deep in Cowboys territory and, with the way the Lions’ offense was humming, probably a touchdown eventually: “Games aren’t decided on one play.” (And, undoubtedly, the Lions simply either ignored or completely blew their myriad opportunities.)
Maybe the Packers would have received the ensuing kickoff and, led by The Greatest Quarterback of All Time (According to Every Sportswriter on Earth, Apparently), Aaron Rodgers, playing with a sore calf muscle, marched right down the field to win or tie the game.
Or maybe on 1st and goal, the exchange between Romo and center Travis Frederick would have been botched and Green Bay would have recovered.
Having watched football seemingly forever, we’ve pretty much seen it all. With some (OK, maybe a bit more than “some”) exceptions (thinking particularly of that 2013 Alabama-Auburn game when that Tiger returned that errant field goal attempt 109 yards for 6), we kind of know how things are going to turn out onfield. The better team usually wins, especially in the pros. I think the whole football-watching world believes the Cowboys would have found the endzone with the quickness had Bryant’s catch held up under review, probably on 1st down. Assuming they would have gone for 2 and succeeded, both logical assumptions, the ’boys would have been up 29-26. That would have left Rodgers with a lot of time to get within tying field goal range at least. That’s probably how that movie (that we’ve all seen a million times over the years) would have ended: a great quarterback leading a game-winning/tying drive in the final moments of the fourth quarter. Overtime would have been a push.
But while his stats (and every sportswriter in the world) may say otherwise, Rodgers did not exactly look like a future hall of famer. And don’t forget that until yesterday’s game he was a very lackluster 5-4 in the postseason. And maybe –– just maybe –– the Cowboys defense would have stepped up. With the way they were buzzing around Rodgers all game but never really getting to him, they seemed due for a big break. You hate to say that one play can determine a game, but, man, this apparently correct call –– based on one overly lawyered, dumb rule –– had a huge impact on this particular game.
I would say that the NFL competition committee, the group that oversees the rulebook, needs to take a look at whatever rule probably cost Dallas another shot at Seattle yesterday, but they’d probably only make it worse. After all, these are the same people who also brought us the back-assward tuck rule (R.I.P., 2001-2013).
But isn’t this another movie we’ve all seen a million times? The Cowboys losing in such a distinctly Cowboys-esque (heartwrenching, probably cursed) fashion?
It’s just going to get harder from here. You could say that expectations –– before and even during the beginning of the season –– were so low that the Cowboys maybe snuck up on some teams. Now that Dallas has established itself as a legit Super Bowl contender, opposing teams’ practices are going to be a little bit longer, their scouting reports a couple of pages thicker. Picking up a front-seven stud in the offseason –– Ndamukong Suh, Justin Houston, and The Kraken are three tantalizing unrestricted free agents –– would probably make a lot of Cowboys fans sleep better at night.
But before they slip into Lalaland, they need to ask themselves one question: “Can I see Tony Romo hoisting a Lombardi Trophy over his head?”
If the answer is no, just remember that none of us probably ever expected to see three-time Super Bowl loser John Elway in that position. Twice. Though I despise the Cowboys (and the Ravens and the overrated Packers and coconut flakes), I love many Cowboys fans. To them I warmly say …