Just as the Detroit Lions started to really fight for some respect, one of the most controversial calls in the rule book, commonly referred to as “The Bert Emanuel Rule”, took it away. In the last 24 seconds of the Detroit-Chicago game on Sept. 12, 2010, the Bears had a 19-14 lead. Lions receiver Calvin Johnson made an amazing catch in the end zone that would have put the Lions on top by one without the extra point. But, a rule relating to the “Player Going to the Ground” process erased what many call a good catch.
After Johnson leaped over the defender and caught the ball, he began falling to the ground. Johnson had full control upon catching the ball: He set both feet on the ground, his hip touched the ground, then he touched the ground with the football in full control, and then let go of the ball, all while in the end zone and in bounds. To anyone who watches football even on the rarest of occasions, this is a catch.
The ruling on the play, as interpreted from the official rulebook, Rule 8 Section 1 Article 4 Item 1, roughly states that, after catching the ball, a player in the process of going to the ground must not lose control of the ball after touching the ground. Johnson maintained control of the ball after he touched the ground with his hip. He then touched the ground with the ball and, at that point, probably he and all fans watching were thinking, score. The officials interpreted the rule as that he had to maintain control after he touched the ground with the ball, and promptly disallowed the touchdown.
So did this call cost the Lions the game winning score? Maybe. Many believe a game should never be won or lost on the basis of a call alone. But in this instance, it certainly seems as though a questionable play call directly affected the result of a game. Was the official interpretation a reflection of a poorly drafted rule? Yes. Many think that “The Bert Emanuel Rule” is not clear and causes varying interpretations.
Consider how many times we have seen a ball carrier dive into the air, his body fully out of bounds but the ball is in bounds, and the player touches the corner pylon with the ball and a touchdown is instantly awarded. In this scenario, many times the carrier loses control of the ball as he crashes to the ground, but because the pylon was touched, the score is good.
Another controversial call you may recall was between the Pittsburg Steelers and the San Diego Chargers. The referees misinterpreted a rule, subsequently killing a play that should have awarded the Steelers with another touchdown. The referees admitted to being confused and misinterpreting the rule, prompting Mike Pereira, then Vice President of Officiating, to adjust the rule for clarification.
Pereira has said that he learns something new each time he reads the rule book. What? Why can’t he read it once and learn the same thing he would if he read it twice? That means he interprets things differently at various times upon different plays. Ambiguous areas of the rule book must be adjusted as the outcome of a game should never be decided by an interpretation well-argued. The rulebook reader should be very clear on what a rule is stating.
Birkett, D. (2010). Refs went by the book in disallowing Calvin Johnson’s catch. Freep.com.
ESPN. (2008). Polamalu TD stricken from record; league to look at ‘tweaking’ replay. ESPN.com
White, J. (2010). Obscure NFL rules baffle players, sometimes refs. Associated Press.