With Thursday night’s game tied at 23, the Patriots had the ball in Minnesota’s six. It was third and goal.
Tight end Hunter Henry caught the ball on the goal line and reached for it before it hit the ground. He lost possession of the ball then finished the catch in the field of play.
The official near the action ruled it a touchdown. The question during the replay was whether Henry kept the ball after hitting the ground. NFL Senior Vice President of Officiating Walt Anderson, who handles all replay matters, ruled the ball touched the ground when Henry landed, making it an incomplete pass.
After the game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters, “Why don’t you go see them with your pool reporter and ask them about the game? Isn’t that what you do?”
Indeed, it is. And indeed they did.
Here’s how Anderson explained the decision to reporter Mike Reiss of ESPN.com: “He was going to the ground, the ball ended up hitting the ground, then he lost control of the ball in his hands.”
Why wasn’t Henry declared in possession of the ball before the ball hit the ground?
“Because he’s going to the ground, he has to keep control of the ball when he hits the ground,” Anderson said. “The commonly used term is ‘survive the ground’. Many people refer to it. So as he goes to ground he has the elements of both feet and control, but because he is going to ground he has to maintain control of the ball when he goes to ground.
As Reiss pointed out to Anderson, Henry had both hands on the ball.
“Well, if he had kept control of the ball with both hands, even if the ball touched the ground, if you didn’t lose control of the ball after it touched the ground, it would still be a snag.”
The decision raises an interesting question as to the application of the “clear and obvious” standard. The decision on the field was a catch for a touchdown. For proofreading, here is the right question: Was the decision on the ground clearly and patently wrong?
There are two distinct elements to the “clear and evident” standard in this case. It was indeed plain and obvious that Henry had lost possession when he landed and regained possession before the end zone. That would have given New England the ball on the one-inch, fourth-and-goal line.
But was it clear and obvious that the ball hit the ground and moved enough that it wasn’t caught at all?
Remember that reversals are only supposed to happen when they are clear and obvious. Fifty drunks in a bar should be okay, as the saying goes.
In this case, it seems clear and obvious that it was not a touchdown. But it doesn’t seem clear and obvious that it wasn’t a snag; Henry’s hand was under the ball at all times. So New England arguably should have had the ball just outside Minnesota’s end zone, fourth-and-goal.
While it’s possible the Patriots went for the field goal and the 26-23 lead, the Patriots may have opted to try and hit for a touchdown. Had the process been true to the “50 drunks to a bar” standard, the Patriots should have had that option.