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 The ball caught the back line and reached across it before hitting the ground. He lost possession of the ball and then completed the catch in the field of play.
The officer next to the action ruled it a touchdown. The issue on replay review was whether Henry retained possession after hitting the ground. NFL senior vice president 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 up to them with your pool reporter and ask them about the play? Isn’t that what you do?“
Indeed it is. 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 touched the ground and then he lost control of the ball in his hands.”
Why didn’t Henry rule possession before the ball hit the ground?
“Because he’s going on the ground, he’s keeping control of the ball on contact with the ground,” Anderson said. “The commonly used term is ‘surviving the ground.’ Many people refer to that. So, going to the ground, he has the elements of two feet and control, but because he is going to the ground, he has to control the ball when it goes to the ground.”
As Reiss pointed out to Anderson, Henry had two hands on the ball.
“Well, if he kept control of the ball with two hands, even if the ball was touching the ground, if you don’t lose control of the ball after it touches the ground, it would still be capture.”
The decision raises an interesting question regarding the application of the “clear and obvious” standard. The ruling on the field was a catch for a touchdown. For a replay review, the right question is this: Was the ruling on the field clearly and unequivocally wrong?
There are two distinct components to the “clear and obvious” standard in this case. It was indeed clear and obvious that Henry lost possession when he landed and regained possession without the boundary of the end zone. That would give New England the ball on the one-inch, quarter-and-back line.
But was it clear and obvious that the ball hit the ground and moved enough that it wasn’t a catch at all?
Remember that reversals are only intended when it is clear and obvious. Fifty drunk people in a bar would have to agree, as it 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 he did not catch; Henry’s hand was always under the ball. Therefore, it could be argued that New England should have had the ball just outside of Minnesota’s end zone, on fourth and back.
While there is a chance the Patriots would have picked the field goal and the lead 26-23, the Patriots may have chosen to try to punt it for a touchdown. If the process were true to the “50 drunks in a bar” standard, the Patriots should have that option.