With Thursday’s game tied at 23, the Patriots had the ball at the Minnesota six. It was third and goal.
Tight end Hunter Henry caught the ball at the goal line and reached across before hitting the ground. He lost possession and then completed the catch in the field.
An official near the action ruled it a touchdown. The question on replay became whether Henry would maintain possession after hitting the ground. NFL Senior VP of Officiating Walt Anderson, who handles all replay and review issues, ruled that the ball hit the ground when Henry landed, making it an incomplete pass.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters after the game, “Why don’t you go up to them with your pool reporter and ask them about the play? Isn’t that what you do?“
It really is. And indeed they did.
Here’s how Anderson explained the bunt decision to ESPN.com reporter Mike Reiss: “He went to the ground, the ball touched the ground and then he lost control of the ball in his hands.”
Why wasn’t Henry ordered to hold the ball before it hit the ground?
“Because when he goes to the ground, he has to maintain control of the ball when he makes contact with the ground,” Anderson said. “The term that is commonly used is ‘survival on earth’. A lot of people refer to it. So when he goes down, he has elements of two feet and control, but because he goes down, he has to maintain control of the ball when he goes down.”
As Reiss pointed out to Anderson, Henry had two hands on the ball.
“Well, if he kept control of the ball with two hands even if the ball touched the ground, as long as you don’t lose control of the ball after it touches the ground, it would still be a catch.
The decision raises an interesting question about the application of the “clear and obvious” standard. The ruling on the field was a catch for a touchdown. For a replay review, the right question is: Was the decision on the field clearly and obviously wrong?
In this case, there are two separate components of the “clear and obvious” standard. It was indeed clear and obvious that Henry had lost possession when he landed and regained possession just short of the end zone. That would give New England the ball at the one-inch line, fourth-and-goal.
But was it clear and obvious that the ball hit the ground and moved enough that it didn’t catch at all?
Remember that twists should only happen when it is clear and obvious. Fifty drunks in a bar would have to agree, as is often described.
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 catch; Henry’s hand was constantly under the ball. So New England probably should have had the ball just outside the Minnesota end zone on fourth and goal.
While it’s possible the Patriots would have opted for a field goal and a 26-23 lead, the Patriots may have decided to try a punt. If the process was true to the “50 drunks in a bar” standard, the Patriots should have had that option.