All of us were aware of it. It happened before we could even see it.
Three million people watched it on TV. Millions of people have watched it in its afterlife. Since the replays started rolling after the ball was whistled dead, no one had the chance to watch it just once. It took about seven seconds for the play to be snapped. The play generated a lot of controversy and took four minutes to decide.
It was a mistake. The referee announced the reversal by the letter of the law after it was ruled a catch. The NFL changed the rules to accommodate its brilliance, which made it a catch again. One of the greatest catches in the history of the game was ruled incomplete, and that's one of the things we see when we watch an NFL game.
Football empires have been caused to rise and fall by other catches that have been made in a short period of time. Bradshaw-Swann, Montana-Clark, Manning-Tyree, Roethlisberger-Holmes, and Brady- Edelman are some of the catches that have changed the game. They all counted. In its enduring social media afterlife, #DezCaughtIt didn't change the way we watch football, but it did change the way we watch it.
This Sunday's game between the Cowboys and Packers will allow us to think about a play that has changed our expectations and our perception, the leaps of imagination we once thought impossible, and the rounds of litigation we now accept as inevitable. It brought football into its modern era when we can't believe what we've seen and then we're told we haven't seen it. If we want to understand why we live in a time when nobody can agree on anything, and if we want to understand why we live in an age of endless uncertainty, we need to watch these teams again.
The moment was what made the play happen. The game was a division game. It was 24 degrees at game time in Green Bay, and though the tundra was not frozen, it was still a game with high stakes for the outcome of the season. The Packers were 612 point favorites, but the Cowboys had gone perfect on the road, and at least three of their players were having careers. Dallas had gone ahead by eight points midway through the third quarter, but Green Bay had scored two touchdown and the Cowboys had to decide if this was their time.
It was a group of men. Over the last three years, we've been rebuilding our team. This was the end of that. We're close to it. We were told to fight and finish the fight.
The score was close. The offense spent five minutes grinding it down to the Green Bay 32 after taking the opening kick. Four minutes and 42 seconds remained and it was fourth down. Scott Linehan did not call the play. Both men remember it in strange ways.
The play had a name. It was one of the most basic concepts we had on our offense and we tried to dress up in many different ways. The idea was that the outside receiver would run routes. The inside receiver was going to run a post route. The tight end is going to run a drag and the inside receiver is going to run a flatter route. You can do that from a lot of different formations. You can throw the go routes on the outside when you're empty.
The Cowboys had less than a yard to go. As soon as they lined up "gun empty," there were two things that became obvious. They weren't going to throw the ball. They could have had Cole Beasley running the shallow post and Jason Witten running the drag, but split left, all alone with Packers' defensive back Sam Shields III up close in press coverage, was the Cowboys' wide receiver, Dez Bryant.
Linehan says that the play was for the two men. If you get one-on-one to the guy if you're in the gold zone, that's one of the options. Tony is going to say that he doesn't know when he's going to get a one-on-one match-up with Dez again. I will win this game now.
It's the biggest game of Tony Romo's career, and all of them agree that he responds with the best read and the best throw of his career. He shows his talent in the face of the Packers' defense, taking a little hop-step and releasing the ball with his short, abrupt, hitch-free motion. The ball goes down the field and goes up in the air. Also, so does Bryant.
He squeezed against Sam Shields, the two of them bumped into each other in the crowded elevator, but on the jump he seems to grab the ball before it has a chance to fall. He begins his leap at the 10-yard line, and then he's at the apogee of everything, with the ball in his hand. It's one of the greatest catches in the history of the game, and he has it. He has it, but he has to come down after going up.
The NFL has something to say about the ground and its relation to what constitutes a catch after he comes back to the ground. It is in the rule book. The addenda, items 1 and 4 are in Rule 8.
The first item is player going to the ground If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass, he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground. The pass is incomplete if he loses control of the ball and it lands on the ground. The pass is complete if he regained control before the ball touched the ground.
The fourth item is the ball touching the ground. It's a catch if the ball touches the ground after the player secures control of it.
The NFL Rulebook is an engineering textbook that doubles as a Christmas Eve instruction manual and an attempt at the American Constitution that gives way to French Structuralism. The subject of the Earthbound is explicated here.
It doesn't start to anticipate the airborne possibilities.
It was the football pass that was suspect in days gone by. The glory of the modern game was the forward pass. What's the catch? The catch was the opposite of a fall. It was so obvious that it was a feature of the American playground that nobody bothered to define it. According to a retired senior VP of player personnel and football operations for the NBA and now a football historian, the newspapers from the '20s understood what a catch was even if the rules weren't explicit about it.
Hugh L. was an associate of George Halas. Ray took it upon himself to codify the rules of the game. Bussert says that he was the person who wrote the catch into the rules. He did not come up with a new idea. The concept of possession was expressed by him. The rule that generations of American fans committed to memory as evidence of the NFL's higher standards came about because of the idea of using the rulebook to differentiate professional football from the college game.
The "one-foot or two- feet" question became pertinent in the late 1940s as teams started to develop sideline passing routes. The sideline catch was one of the signature plays of the NFL in the 50s and 60s. For the official on the field, the catch rule was the same as every other rule in the NFL. It wasn't easy to enforce, but it was easy to interpret because the rule encourages a certain amount of discretion.
"When I was on the field, it was very easy to make a call," says Mike Pereira, who joined Fox as a rules analyst in 2010 after working for the NCAA and the NFL.
Nobody wanted a fumbled catch confused with a lost ball. It was when in doubt that it was incomplete. We used to call them "bang-bang plays" because they happened in real time. Did the receiver have something? He got his second foot in. The answer was a catch. It was not if the answer was no. A lot of it was instincts. 99% of the time you were correct. You weren't a lot. The game would continue.
It sounds like a framework for chaos. The act of catching the ball was clear to Steve Largent when he was a player for the Seattle Seahawks. It was important to have control of the ball and two feet in bounds in order to determine a catch. I have been playing for 14 years and caught 825 footballs. I can't remember ever complaining to an official that I didn't catch a ball that they said I did, or that I didn't catch a ball that they said I did. I had two feet in bounds, but not when I did. I have no recollection of that happening. The officials were excellent.
Largent says they are better now. Their relationship to the catch was redefined in 1999 The use of instant replay to review on-field rulings was voted out by the owners of the National Football League. Seven years later, it came back as a competitive feature of the game to allow coaches to challenge bad calls.
If a mistake had been made, plays could be reversed. The catch rule remained the same at first. The catch was not successful. The rulings and catches had taken place on the field at the same time. The most dramatic rulings came as a result of referees using the replay booth's technological resources.
They watched replays at multiple angles and in slow motion and then came up with rulings that were more like a decree. The catch became synonymous with second thoughts on TV. Control, two feet, had become three-dimensional, and the added dimensions were the most puzzling.
"Replay tried to define the element of time, and that changed everything." Or, as Bussert says, time is the variable.
There was a man named Garrison there. He was on the sideline. He was able to watch it in person. He watched from a distance. He watched it on the Jumbotrons. After the game ended and the Cowboys flew home, he continued to watch from every possible angle and speed.
He has watched it many times and he can tell you what happened when Dez Bryant grabbed the ball from the air in Green Bay.
The rule was about when. When a player secures control of the ball in his hands or arms, he touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his. The act that Dez Bryant performed was so uncommon to the game that it not only satisfied but exceeded any possible conditions the NFL could dream up.
Everyone is going to say you have to survive the ground. Everyone uses that rescue. If you watch, he catches the ball in the air. Dean Blandino and Gene Steratore have both said that when you're talking about whether or not it's a catch, you simply need to have time to make a football move. They said you don't have to make a move, you just have time to make it. Yes, right? Let's see what happened. He caught the ball at the 5-yard line. He takes a single step, two steps, and a third step. He puts the ball in his hand. He extended the ball on his third step. He made a lot of football moves. The three steps are important. The three step rule is a catch. He had to have time to make a move common to the game. They don't give him a catch after he caught the ball 13 feet in the air on the 5, taking three steps, lunging, and extending the ball, even though it was ruled a catch on the field. We are going to overturn that. Are we going to take away one of the most famous plays in the history of the game?
There is a person who gets it correct. Let's see it again. We look at catches over and over, especially that one, so let's look again. Slow it down now. Even on a phone, you can see it frame by frame, each frame counting for about a second and each one telling its own story.
The first is when Romo gets the snap.
The second is when the quarterback takes a step and throws the ball before the corner reaches him.
Bryant and Shields are running together at the 20 and Shields is at Bryant's inside shoulder.
They saw the ball. Shields extended his left arm as Bryant started gathering himself. Bryant raised his arms halfway through the picture. His leap lasts from the middle of one frame to the middle of the next at the 10-yard line.
The tip of his fingers are 13 feet off the ground as he is at the top. Shields is unable to get to the ball. He braced himself for the ground and came down first. Bryant held the ball at the level of his face mask. His left foot touches at the 5. The full length of Bryant's body has not met the ground when he holds the ball in his left hand.
Bryant has not stopped moving, even when he hits the ground, his face at the goal line, the bottoms of his cleats raised towards the sky, the ball pinned underneath him.
The seventh: Now he's rolling, his momentum sustained by the forces he has unleashed; he's on his back as he rolls over the goal line and the ball comes out of his hands. For a short time, it floats over him, but he grabs it, and the side judge runs towards him.
It looks like a ballet but it is not. A distortion is what it is. Almost everything looks like a catch in slow motion. Everything is caught by frame. Some people argue that when officials scrutinize catches in slow motion, they discover that the pigskin looks like a grease pig to escape capture.
It wiggles, it wobbles, and even on replays of confirmed catches it's surprisingly wobbly, as Galileo is supposed to have said. In slow motion, you can see that. The question is whether the ball moves in Bryant's hands when he falls or if it already moves in his hands when he lands. The coach thought it was. Stephen Jones, Jerry's son and the COO of the Cowboys, was a member of the Competition Committee of the National Football League.
I told my father and brother because they said it would be a problem. I believe he was going to the floor. They asked what he meant. I believe he was going to the ground after securing the ball. This thing can be reversed.
The stringency of the standard needed for a call to be overruled was what most people knew at the time. That was also up for grabs. Dean Blandino, the VP of officiating, was in charge of determining the fate of the ball when it was let go.
"We used to say it was irrefutable." Replay was based on that premise. We made that clear and obvious. Today, what is irrefutable? People think the world is not flat.
There's a story about uncertain facts. The instruments used for scientific measurement kept growing more precise in the early 20th century as technology continued to improve. The clock and train schedules were synchronized across Europe. It was important for the patent office in Bern to know that different trains could leave their stations at the same time. It was odd to a clerk who worked there.
"Albert Einstein said we used to think we knew what we were talking about," says Hans Halvorson. "simultaneous" is what it means. Einstein said, "Wait, when we have really precise measurement, what we thought of as being the same time breaks down." We have no idea what it means to say something happened in New Jersey at the same time as something happened in Australia.
The breakthrough that defines modern physics is the result of it. Halvorson says that the experimental techniques kept getting better and better so that they could pin down more and more. As one thing was pinned down more and more precisely, it made other questions more difficult to answer.
More knowledge leads to less certainty than it does to Einstein's theory of relativity. Halvorson said that there are people who hope that this is a temporary thing and that we will eventually figure out how to beat it. We need to figure out what makes us think we can do things without limits. That turns out not to be correct.
There is a catch. The members of the committee were aware of it. The president and CEO of the Falcons thought he knew he was on the Competition Committee. They saw it in a slow motion and freeze frame, like a person looking at something for the first time. McKay said the play was well-officiated on the ground. The officials did a great job. They did not make a lot of errors. They did it simplistically, which was incomplete. It was not that difficult. We had to go frame by frame.
"All of a sudden replay came in, and it was, 'Hey, hold it,' and the ball moved a bit in his hand." What are you talking about? I don't think that's true. For a long time, we just continued to tinker with the rule. We woke up and said, "Let's just rewrite it."
From the beginning of the instant replay era, there was controversy. Uncertainty had been present. McKay and his confres at the committee did something that had never been done before. The rules had been changed before. The catch rule was the first thing that the committee had to change because of replay. The rules for our game were written for on-field officials. We had to change the rule because it was an on-field rule and not a replay rule. It was difficult for some of us.
The challenge was to come up with language that explained what they saw. McKay says that they had to figure out a conceptual solution to a perceptual problem or put some objective criteria in there and live with the fact that we're changing the language for replay. What are the objectives for the element of time?
McKay was at home watching the playoffs with his wife when Bryant snatched the ball from the air. He took a break after working with his boss to find a new coach. McKay returned home and the game was on. I watched it. I don't want to tell you this, but it's going to take a long time. I was aware of it. You were able to see it.
The guy on the field used to be the one who called the game. He would go under the hood and talk to the replay official in the booth and announce his decision. The authority for the reviews was given to New York in the year 2014). Riveron was the league's top official for two years. Instead of 16 different refs making calls, there was one guy with his finger on everything.
Dean Blandino, who had never been an on-field official in the NFL, was the VP forOfficiating on January 11, 2015. He was used to watching games in which the most dramatic plays were played. He knew what he was seeing when the Cowboys lined up "gun empty" on fourth-and-2 from the Green Bay 32.
The referee Gene Steratore reversed the catch after the Packers challenged it.
Blandino, who has been a rules analyst for Fox since last year, says that this could be a big, big play. I saw it immediately. I knew there was replay smoke when I saw the guy grab the ball as he rolled in the end zone. We have a hint that we might have an issue. I didn't have a chance to watch the broadcast, but I was interested in the play.
I was watching the Packers sideline and I said to McCarthy that he was going to challenge this and then the red flag came out. I told the room to get ready because the s--- is going to hit the fan. I felt that this was going to be one of those calls that were just so large, so close and in such significant situations. We talked it through after Gene came over.
Gene was a rules analyst for CBS and he wore a striped shirt and white hat. For the past 18 years, he was an official for both the NBA and the NFL. He was associated with the catch rule controversy because he was the ref who ruled that Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions had not completed the process of completing the catch.
He had made that call with no backup from New York, and now, even though he was working with Blandino, it came again, the strange rule that would define his career.
He didn't see the catch that Bryant made. His job as a referee was to watch the trenches and the quarterback. He had a process for replay reviews, he had to first watch the play in real time, and when he saw the persuasive power of it, he was not immune to it.
"When he possessed that football at the 4- or 5-yard line, he was such a great athlete that even if he hadn't come back down to earth, he was still going to finish the catch while he was airborne and reaching for the ball." For an athletic and human perspective, "I'm finishing this process up here, at 13 feet, and before I land I'm going for the end zone, that's who I am, that's what I do."
It was a catch. It isn't so fast. Steratore went under the hood and talked to Blandino, who told him that he had to leave that on the field. When you're under the hood you have to start defining and concurring. We go back to say that we have an airborne receiver.
The league has rules about who can catch and who can't. The rules don't take into account the startling abilities of a receiver like Dez Bryant, whose airborne status is treated as a liability upon reentering, unless he stands up and becomes a runner.
He took three steps and one of them pushed the turf of Lambeau Field backwards. He was falling and when he landed the ball popped up between his arms and I had a falling receiver. The ball disengaged from the receiver's possession as he fell, causing him to reach for it. The rule states that the receiver has to survive the ground.
The language of the catch rule makes philosophers sound like football analysts. Nine-tenths of the law everywhere but on a football field are the concepts of the catch. The concept of "surviving the ground" has never appeared in the rules of the game. Steratore and Blandino might have used a stone to solve the problem, but they never disagreed.
Blandino says that they were on the same page. Scott Linehan saw Steratore walk over to Mike McCarthy and he knew the Cowboys were in trouble. The receiver did not maintain possession of the football.
Bryant didn't start celebrating when he came back to the sideline. He replied with strained pleas to the side judge, as if he were defending himself from an unjust accusation. I tried to get over the line. That wasn't a catch. I attempted to get over the goal line. The side judge turned his back on him, and tended to his duties on the field. Bryant could have said what he wanted. The catch didn't happen on the ground, so it didn't survive? He failed to maintain possession on the ground, and the officials failed to imagine a catch in the air.
He will tell the two of them that he has caught thousands of passes and that he knows it was a catch. He will tell reporters that he's never seen anything like it. I have nothing else to say on it.
In his reading of the rules, it was clear that the receiver must maintain possession of the football throughout the entire process of catching. He kept possession, but fell and never had another act like that in the game.
The style and subject are perfect. We can watch Bryant go up for the ball 100 times without knowing if he got the ball or not, and we can read Steratore's ruling 100 times without knowing what it means.
Steve Largent caught the ball more times than any other person in history. The lack of controversy generated by his body of work has more to do with the nature of his catches than it does with his number. His talent was mostly horizontal. His catches were challenging but not convincing.
13 feet in the air isn't where they occurred. At the edge of human perception as well as of human capacity, what Dez Bryant achieved at Lambeau Field in January 2015 is a landmark in the history of the National Football League. The NFL's replay technology was just beginning to establish its on-field dominance when his talent came to the league. He caused a problem.
The catch itself was interpreted by Bryant's generation of receivers as the cause of the crisis. The completed forward pass has become an object of doubt and uneasiness in the eyes of many. Its fans were not just questioning the officials, they were also questioning themselves. The National Football League can't say what a catch is. The league didn't act immediately because it's the league and it has to admit it made a mistake.
"I think they realized they messed up," he said. It was difficult for them to acknowledge that. Guys were stumbling across the field and then falling down. People were confused when the ball came out. Was he alive when he fell? The rule is what everyone is talking about when they go to owners meetings. "Hey, there's 100 guys at a bar, what do they think of it?" is the line that everyone uses. A group of men at a bar think that Bryant caught the ball. The league was justifying the decision. For a few years.
The committee began to call around. People were brought to New York for help. The senior director of officiating at the time said that they brought in NFL legends to give their opinion on what a catch is. We brought in coaches, we brought players, we brought Hall of Famers, we brought presidents, and we listened to everyone. This is how we made a decision. We wanted it to be simple. Some of the great catches being made were not allowed by the previous rule. Jim Zorn said that under our rule, this is no longer a catch. The best athletes in the world should be rewarded for their work.
Stephen Jones was an emotional advocate of changing the rule because he was part of the Cowboys ownership. If you've got 100 guys at the bar and 99 of them say that was a catch, you should pay attention to that. You don't want your fans to tell you what to do. You want to know what fans think is important.
There was a rule change in the year. A catch is something. A catch is made when the ball is in the air. A forward pass is complete if a player who is inbounds secures control of the ball in his hands or arms before the ball touches the ground. The movement of the ball doesn't mean it will lose control.
The catch didn't need to survive the ground. For all the world to see, Dez caught the ball while still aloft, extending it forward and taking an additional step for everyone to see. The league finally completed its own process of centralizing control of on-field officials at its headquarters.
The technology brought to bear on the catch rule has been transformational. Each of the 18 stations at the Art McNally Game Center has full access to the feeds from every single camera at every single field, all of them synchronized by the same proprietary Hawkeye software that has eliminated argument in tennis. There are a lot of cameras, for example, at Monday Night Football broadcasts, which means there is a lot of information available to the hall monitors at Park Avenue that officials on the field can't.
"It's always been two worlds colliding," says John Parry, who is now an analyst for the sports network. The science and art of replay have been involved. The distinction is being broken down by the amount of data. The officials at the Game Center make their presence felt outside the confines of challenge and review, speaking to officials on the field through their earpieces, correcting obvious mistakes, and changing the spot. Are we moving towards reviewing the action based on video, regardless of the ruling on field, and just going with the technology?
Gene Steratore compares officiating under the influence of Art McNally GameDay Central to driving with a gps device. There are still accidents that happen on the field. Despite the attention paid to the language of the catch rule and the technology marshaled for its enforcement, the fundamental uncertainty remains. There is no catch without a question and the technological monitoring of the catch takes place in real time.
Patrick Mahomes threw the ball to Asante Samuel Jr., who cut into the path of the ball.
"Mahomes backs up, steps up, fires - and that's nearly picked," said Al Michael. Samuel is wondering if he comes up with it. Is it dead on the ground? He thinks he's chosen it. Was it on the ground or not? The man is walking away as if he knows it's an intercept. The play by Asante Samuel was amazing.
It isn't an intercept. In the replay, Samuel Jr leaps, grabs the ball in his hands, and with the ball to his chest falling on top of it. Is he able to catch it?
Terry Maculay said it was an incomplete pass. He hit the ground without controlling the ball. The pass is incomplete after review. Samuels didn't make a move that was common to the game. Fans are debating whether it was a catch or not after a video of the play went to the internet. It lives on in the minor celebrity of uncertainty.
Adam Elga, a philosophy professor at Princeton and a colleague of Hans Halvorson, says that there is an imaginary story about two sets of rules. The bar can either fall off the uprights or not, so it is easy to judge. In a world where there is a different set of rules, the question is not if the bar falls off, but how much it falls. People are starting to say, "It wobbled, it wobbled!" It doesn't have to do with how good the video cameras are. It has to do with the idea
Elga suggests that the video cameras can only feed your uncertainty more information because they can't clear up your doubts.
If they're not good enough, it won't matter. Where does the catch end? We had some uncertainty about the catch, but we didn't know what was happening. We do now.
There is a difference between the limits of perception and the promise of technology. There are a lot of catches in our culture there. Elga thinks the catch rule is happening for a lot of non- football stuff.
When we talk about scrutinizing replays frame by frame, I can't help but think of the defense in the King trial, trying to justify each strike frame by frame. There's no chance to do that if there's not a lot of footage out there. Suddenly, you have a lot of footage and so you have a lot of dentists looking at it and thinking they know what's going on.
Why do we watch football games? Take the number of people who watch football into account. How much do we talk about football? Consider the catch, how we experience it, as an audience, and how the experience has been changed by technology. Someone tries to tell us what happened when a catch is made on the field of play. Some catches are not subject to official review. Every catch is subject to debate.
Almost every catch is scrutinized. The television analysts ask their producers for the best angle, the highest resolution, the decisive frame, at last one of the 20 or 30 cameras on hand gives it to them The ball can either move or stay the same. Either it is a catch or not. The simplest thing in the world is not what happened on the field, it's what we see on our TVs.
We rely on technology to deliver clarity. Uncertainty and prayer are what it gives, along with the hope that better technology will yield better results.
The cycle of replay, review, doubt, debate is part of the game now. It's fun, it's fascinating, and the controversy that comes with it linger in our memories longer than the final scores. The question of what constitutes a catch has become part of football's present; it also figures to become an important part of its future as gambling apps encourage fans to bet not just on final scores but also on catches. Imagine what the controversy will be like when millions of dollars are spent on the answer to the question of whether or not Dez Bryant survived the ground.
Is it a symptom of something bigger than the Cowboys' inability to get a crucial first down? We like to watch football because the questions it requires us to answer are very easy to answer. The questions are getting more and more similar. We don't know what we know. We don't know how to believe what we see. We come for the game and stay for the replay. In the hope of resolution, we watch the replay over and over, but it's not as easy as it was when Abraham Zapruder filmed the first instant replay. We have no choice but to continue to watch.
It's beautiful no matter how many times you see it. It is perfect every time. He might never come down after going up. A person goes so high. The ball moves when he touches the ground. The end of the play is ambiguous. You can't be sure if it's #DezCaughtIt. You remember it because of that.
They don't remember it because of that. It was the best of everyone that he had. They made the play at the very end. It was taken away. It was ruled a catch on the field, which was the biggest issue for me. They changed their minds. It's not possible to tell me that play was worth someone coming in and reversing it. You can't tell me that Dean Blandino and Gene Steratore talked about it. We still don't agree with it. He lost his job as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 2020.
Tony didn't want to comment on the story. His wife cried about it in the documentary. Her husband had a job. He was injured in the season. He wasn't healthy again. After retiring, he went to work for CBS as a predictive analyst. His most important moment was as a quarterback.
Bryant said he had plans for the story of #DezCaughtIt. He's trying to start a platform of his own, called Personal Corner, and is trying to control his own narrative by athletes for athletes. It makes sense since he lost what he had. It's time to look at it one more time. The Cowboys were playing the Packers at Lambeau Field.
The team was the best of all time.
It was one of the best throws of Tony's career.
It was the best catch of his life.
He timed his jump to grab the ball that came at him.
The game was still going on at that point.
On downs, they lost the ball.
They couldn't get it back.