Please, NFL, takes us back to the days when a catch was a catch

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.”

Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz dives for a touchdown past New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty in the third quarter of Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

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.

[Eagles go from losers to champs in one year, but what about Miami?]

[Dan Mullen predicts national title for Gators but doesn’t say when]

[Eagles coach Doug Pederson once saved Shula’s bacon as backup QB]

 

Look past Brady to bottom of depth chart and you’ll see what makes Belichick so Super

Whenever something goes right for the New England Patriots, everybody says, well, that’s Bill Belichick for you.

Playing angles that other coaches don’t see. Getting more from particular players than anyone else has. Digging deeper and demanding more, so that man on the roster or on the staff either owns a vital role in the franchise’s continuing success or he is quickly replaced.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – JANUARY 29: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots arrives at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for Super Bowl LII. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Oh, and if I don’t mention that on occasion Belichick and his team have been caught cheating, somebody out there is going to say I left something out of his personal toolbox, so there’s that, too.

The point is that while we’re all focusing on Tom Brady and his singular contributions to all those Super Bowl titles, Belichick is working so far behind the scenes and doing it so well that most of it never gets noticed.

For instance, Belichick spent a fifth-round draft choice on a long snapper in 2015. That may not seem like such a big deal, but Brady was a sixth-rounder when he came to the Patriots from Michigan in the 2000 NFL draft.

For that matter, Danny Amendola, whose two fourth-quarter touchdown catches completed New England’s comeback win over Jacksonville in the AFC title game, wasn’t drafted by the Patriots or anyone else when he came out of college in 2008.

So for Belichick to use a fifth-round pick on a specialty item like long snapper, well, it had to mean something. And it does. Joe Cardona is a highly-disciplined guy who played college football at the U.S. Naval Academy. He will play in Sunday’s Super Bowl, just he played in the last one, only after receiving permission to reschedule his weekend duty with a Navy reserve unit.

Belichick grew up around Navy football and graduated from Annapolis High School. His father, Steve Belichick, was on the football staff at the academy forever, coaching special teams and producing some of the most detailed and useful scouting reports anyone has ever seen.

Those are the reports that the future Patriots coach studied and absorbed as soon as he was finished with his homework. Those are the influences that would lead Belichick to prize the minute details of snapping and kicking and punting so highly, and to call Cardona personally in 2015 to let him know that New England had used the 166th overall pick on a specialty player like him.

Only a handful of Navy athletes have been selected in the history of the regular NFL draft, not much more than a dozen. Roger Staubach and Napoleon McCallum are the best known.

As for long snappers in general, Cardona was believed to be only the fourth in history to be drafted by an NFL team at the time he joined New England. Since Belichick made such an unusual priority of that position, however, a long snapper has been selected in the sixth round of the last two drafts, one by Detroit and one by Pittsburgh.

None of this will ever matter to anybody watching Super Bowl LII on Sunday unless there is a bad Patriots snap on a kick, and I’m figuring there won’t be. Cardona can be trusted to come through. He’s a Belichick guy and has been from the start.

We could jump all over the Patriots roster and find other names that explain why this team is so great.  You get the picture. There’s a coach here who know what he wants – consistency, reliability and a high football I.Q. – and he never compromises.

Yep, that’s Belichick for you.

[Dan Mullen promises national title for Gators but doesn’t say when]

[Who knew Hoffman was bound for Cooperstown when Marlins traded him?]

[Nothing remains for LeBron to do except giving it a try as player-coach]

Eagles could go from losers to Super Bowl champs in one year, but what about Miami?

How far are the Miami Dolphins from winning a Super Bowl?

It seems a ridiculous question coming off a 6-10 season, but there is a history of losing teams making the jump to NFL champion in the space of just one year.

New England did it in 2001. The Patriots were 5-11 the previous season and there was

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nate Sudfeld, second from bottom, is followed by running back LeGarrette Blount, linebacker Mychal Kendricks, and quarterback Nick Foles, as they arrive for the NFL Super Bowl 52 football game Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in Minneapolis. Philadelphia is scheduled to face the New England Patriots. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

nothing much to recommend them except that they never got shut out. Miami suffered that indignity twice in 2017, and it very nearly happened a third time.

The 1999 St. Louis Rams won a Super Bowl after going 4-12 the previous season and sticking Dick Vermeil with the worst record of his 15-year NFL coaching career.

San Francisco won it all in 1981, just one year removed from a 6-10 clunker that was similar in some ways to what the Dolphins are going through. Bill Walsh, for instance, was in his second year as an NFL head coach and he had no more luck igniting his creative offensive ideas with Steve DeBerg at quarterback than Adam Gase did with Jay Cutler.

So what happened to transform those losers into Super Bowl champs so quickly? Obviously there was improvement throughout the rosters, but the most glaring similarity was a significant upgrade at quarterback.

Tom Brady, Kurt Warner and Joe Montana all were first trusted to handle full-time starting roles in those breakthrough seasons. They got their teams through some tight spots and continued to do so for years thereafter.

So about those Dolphins. Can’t see Ryan Tannehill or even some first-round draft pick suddenly giving Gase all that he needs at quarterback. It’s not impossible, though.

The Philadelphia Eagles were 7-9 a year ago and it’s not impossible that they might become Super Bowl champs on Sunday, even with a supposed downgrade at quarterback.

[Mullen promises national title for Gators but doesn’t say when]

[Who knew Hoffman was bound for Hall of Fame when Marlins traded him?]

[Nothing left for LeBron to do but give player-coaching a try]

Former backup QB Doug Pederson saved Don Shula’s bacon and now Nick Foles is doing the same for the Eagles’ coach

It’s not the way he would have wanted it, but it’s kind of cool that Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson is headed to the Super Bowl with a backup quarterback, Nick Foles.

11/14/93 – Dolphins backup QB Doug Pederson in action. Palm Beach Post File Photo

In a storyline that you’ll hear much more about in the two weeks before the Eagles face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, Pederson himself was a career backup in the NFL and bounced around in the World League of American Football, too.

He started 17 NFL games in his 10-year career with Green Bay, Philadelphia, Miami and Cleveland but is best remembered for a game he didn’t start.

It was Pederson who came off the bench in 1993 to help Don Shula to his 325th career victory, the one that moved the coach past George Halas and into first-place all time.

The game was in Philadelphia, as if there aren’t enough circular connections to this thing, and the Dolphins already were without Dan Marino because of a torn Achilles. Scott Mitchell had been doing a credible job in his stead for a couple of weeks but then Mitchell, too, was knocked from the Eagles game early in the second half with a separated throwing shoulder.

In came Pederson, whose name Shula sometimes had trouble remembering during the crazy scramble to find viable depth and the race to get the new guy ready for an emergency. Pederson had never thrown a pass in an NFL game and he showed some early nerves, fumbling the ball away at the 1-yard line on the first scoring opportunity that he got.

“He (Shula) just told me to keep my head up,” Pederson said. “He told me to just do the things I knew how to do. Kept giving me support and encouragement.”

In the end the Dolphins had just enough to get by, winning 19-14 on a couple of field-goal drives as Pederson (3-for-6 passing for 34 yards) tried simply to make the basic plays that were required of him.

He wasn’t with the team much longer as Shula, who was carried off the field that day at Philadelphia, turned back to 39-year-old Steve DeBerg and eventually to Mitchell to finish out a 9-7 season. The Dolphins were 7-2 on that magical afternoon, however, and Shula, in his wildest scramble since having to start halfback Tom Matte at quarterback in his Baltimore Colts days, had not given up hope.

“I would love to see this football team continue to win and go all the way to the Super Bowl,” Shula said. “We have to continue to believe in ourselves.”

That’s how Pederson is working this Eagles’ postseason run now in the absence of starting quarterback Carson Wentz, and so far it’s working. Foles, by the way, is far more competent than Pederson was and came make all the plays, as demonstrated in a 38-7 NFC title game win over Minnesota on Sunday.