I’m with Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti when it comes to the NFL’s nit-picky reviews of what is a catch and what isn’t, a debate that slowed celebrations again at two crucial moments in Sunday’s Super Bowl LII.
“The whole thing is stupid,” said Bisciotti, whose team didn’t even play in that game. “Start over. It’s just ridiculous.”
Secure the ball. Two feet down in bounds. Bingo. That’s what is required by the NFL in the rule’s simplest form, and how it used to be judged in real time by referees who got most of them right and missed a few without the support or the dissent of an instant-replay review team in New York.
Now, however, doubt is the strongest instant emotion that fans can afford to invest in any spectacular catch. It’s up to a frame-by-frame analysis of the video, examined over several minutes, to determine whether it is finally safe to cheer or boo or head for the exits based on what just happened right in front of their eyes.
Wait a minute. Did the ball wobble in his arms while a receiver is getting blasted by a linebacker, or do we give him due credit for merely retaining possession of all his teeth under the force of that hit? To me, it’s the latter.
There are hundreds of amazing catches in the history of this league that would be wiped out if the video vultures went back and feasted on them now. With the amount of coordination and pluck that is needed to fit some of those passes in there and to snatch them out of the air in heavy traffic, is it realistic to demand an additional layer of precision, almost surgical precision, before a catch can count?
In baseball there are arguments every inning over what constitutes a strike, but if a player or a manager can’t accept that judgment call in the moment, he gets tossed and the game goes on without him. The way that instant replay is creeping into bang-bang calls at the bases is a worrisome trend. It slows down a game that already is too slow. It pretends that sports can be made perfect.
This wonderment over the shifting definition of a completed pass in football is a result of our love affair with technology. It has reached its zenith in tennis, where calls on whether a ball is in or out are settled by the display of an animated replay that is accepted with the same validity of an actual camera shot. The Great Cartoon has spoken. The Great Cartoon knows all and sees all.
As that other great cartoon, Charlie Brown, often says, I can’t stand it.
What is a basket in the NBA? Everybody knows that, and if the answer was even a little bit fuzzy they couldn’t play the game.
It works the same way in other sports, too, when it comes to the absolute basics.
What is a lost ball in golf? When you can’t find it, right?
What is a strike in bowling? When all of the pins get splattered and much of the beer gets spilled.
What is a knuckle sandwich in hockey? Again, you don’t even belong in the arena if a clinical explanation is needed.
So the NFL stands at a real crossroads here. Figure out the catch thing. This isn’t a video game. It’s real, and it’s really hard to get it right when the league keeps piling on reasons why a difficult touchdown grab is wrong.