Dean Blandino has an unenviable job.
On any given Sunday, the NFL vice president of officiating has to explain the unexplainable and defend the indefensible. He has to convince us that our eyes are lying, our common sense is faulty and our comprehension is slow.
Like a crisis PR expert hired by a disgraced public figure, Blandino wore a slight “I-don’t-buy-this-myself” grin Sunday as he peddled dung to save his employer’s face. The veep was at his unbelievable best after an interception by the Chicago Bears was overturned via replay and converted to touchdown for the Detroit Lions.
Golden Tate caught a pass at the half-yard line and broke the goal line’s plane as a defensive back tugged on the ball. It popped out, was batted around in the air and landed in linebacker James Anderson’s arms. The play appeared to a classic case of the Dez Bryant/Calvin Johnson rule, which says some receptions aren’t receptions at all.
We’ve been conditioned by the numerous non-catch catches – Atlanta halfback Devonta Freeman had one for a reversed touchdown against Washington in Week 5 – so no one except Lions fans believed that had Tate scored. Officials on the field ruled the play an interception and a touchback. The game announcers agreed. Fox Sports’ Mike Pereira, formerly head of officiating for the league, thought it was obvious that Tate didn’t transition from receiver to runner and therefore needed to maintain possession until the play was complete.
But just in case the catch/not-a-catch rule wasn’t confusing enough, the replay official added another six layers by overturning the call.
Bring in the mouthpiece.
“This is different than the plays we’ve been talking about, the Dez Bryant play or the Calvin Johnson play,” Blandino said on NFL Network. “This is not a receiver who’s going to the ground. The issue here is, did he become a runner before the ball came loose? Did he have control, both feet down, and then time enough to become a runner after the second foot is down?”
Uh, not conclusively enough to REVERSE the call on the field!
The ball was coming loose before it came it out all the way. Whether he was upright or falling, Tate didn’t complete the process before losing possession. But the replay official saw it differently and Blandino had his back.
“When you watch the play and the ball comes loose, (Tate) is taking his third step,” he said. “The third step is almost on the ground when the ball comes out. He had demonstrated possession and become a runner. Once the ball breaks the plane of the goal line in possession of a runner it is a touchdown and the play is over at that point.”
Media members, fans and other armchair analysts were dumbfounded by the reversal. So was Pereira, who makes his living as an NFL rules expert.
“That’s incredible to me … but that’s New York’s judgment that he had become a runner,” Pereira tweeted shortly after the decision. “We’ve looked at that play 10 more times, and find it hard to believe based on the current guidelines that he was a runner.”
The NFL is big on guidelines, especially on sweating the small stuff.
Pittsburgh Steelers halfback DeAngelo Williams recently asked for permission to wear pink the rest of the season, in honor of his mother, who died from breast cancer last year. The NFL denied his request, stating there are no exceptions to the uniform policy.
Teammate Cameron Heyward was fined in Week 5 for writing “Iron Head” on his eye black, a tribute to his late father and former NFL running back Craig Heyward. New York Jets receiver Brandon Marshall, who has been open about his battle with mental illness, was fined last season for wearing lime green cleats to promote Mental Health Awareness Week.
When it comes to uniforms (or six-second highlight clips on the Internet), the NFL is as clear as Roger Goodell’s conscience regarding his $44 million salary.
But when it comes to important on-field matters such as, say, what constitutes a catch, the league is maddeningly muddy.
Granted, this isn’t as grave a concern as handling players accused of domestic violence (another area in which the NFL struggles). It doesn’t reach the level of concussion protocols and player-safety initiatives. Fans in St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland have more pressing worries, such as whether their team will relocate to Los Angeles.
But when a receiver comes down with a pass and no one knows whether it’s a completion, an incompletion or – as in the Bears-Lions game – an interception, that’s a big problem.
And trotting out a flack doesn’t solve it.