Commentary

See Calvin Johnson's catch? (Uhh, no.)

The worst thing about that horrible call is that it apparently was the correct one

Originally Published: September 14, 2010
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

You didn't see what you just saw. This is the NFL's great trick, to make you believe your eyes are lying to you. That wasn't a touchdown catch by Detroit's Calvin Johnson -- oh, no, nothing of the sort. It was a proper application of a rule. It was an interpretation.

They see parenthetical parsings; we see touchdowns. The first weekend of the NFL season included the worst officiating decision in history. You know why calling Johnson's catch an incompletion was the worst ever? Because apparently it was the correct decision.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
AP Photo/Greg TrottCalvin Johnson's play in the end zone seemed to meet everyone's criteria for a reception. Except the NFL's.

Check your common sense at the door.

There is no reasonable person -- or at least not one whose livelihood isn't directly tied to the NFL -- who could watch Johnson's catch and believe it wasn't a touchdown. It's simply not possible. On any playground in America, on any high school field or backyard or even in a BCS Championship Game, it's a catch. Your eyes didn't lie. You didn't even need replay for this one.

Johnson had possession of the ball the same way a quarterback has possession of the ball when he fakes a pass. If a runner gets a touchdown when he extends the ball over the goal line for a millisecond before it's swatted out of his hand, how can Johnson's catch be anything but a touchdown?

It can't. The debate itself is an intellectual embarrassment.

But there are people in suits and NFL lapel pins high-fiving over this one. The rule was interpreted correctly, and everything else be damned. It's indicative of a bigger problem with the NFL: too many interpretations, too many people trying to find ways to deny or defy the obvious.

Only an entity as self-important as the NFL could turn something this simple into something this difficult. The league is too busy parsing the rules and polishing the image and raising the ticket prices to see the evidence gathering at its feet.

It's systemic: fewer paying customers, and yet a strict adherence to the fan-unfriendly blackout rule; coaches exalted as workaholic geniuses who signal for timeouts as if it's a facial tic and manage the clock as if it's more complicated than minutes and seconds; geniuses, in fact, such as Buffalo's Chan Gailey, who took an intentional safety with under two minutes left to set up the inevitable onside kick and then -- it's almost hard to believe this is possible -- kicked it deep.

Maybe it's the noise or the stress or the lack of sleep, but something causes too many of these coaches to mind-cramp and abandon all common sense. Andy Reid sends Michael Vick crashing directly into the middle of the line on the game's deciding play. Mike Singletary's team goes to thick-legged fullback Moran Norris twice -- twice! -- inside the Seattle 5-yard-line, once on a fourth-down pass. Wade Phillips stands idly while Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett falls a notch or two down the list of head-coaching candidates by failing to call a kneel-down on the final play of the first half against the Redskins.

This is why Pete Carroll -- love him or hate him -- is going to be a success this time around. He might need to be restrained by the officials because he's running onto the field cheering like a song girl (that happened Sunday), but he's going to succeed for one overriding reason: He's not tense. He's made his money and his name and he's not coaching like he's afraid to be fired. He's not coaching to lose by six. He's not overthinking it. He's going to use his best guys at the most important times. He's going to let common sense rule the day. That was apparent in the way he thoroughly outcoached Singletary on Sunday. You watch: It won't be the Seahawks' last surprise of the season.

[+] EnlargeMoran Norris
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonSan Francisco fullback Moran Norris is a fine player. But what was he doing with the ball on a fourth-down pass?

But the officials & back to the officials. There's another issue that will keep them in the news this year. It's clear they're under orders to do a better job protecting players, and that's a good thing. No argument there. But again, it's all about interpretation, and Week 1 showed more detachment from common sense.

The Redskins' London Fletcher was called for a late hit on a play in which Tashard Choice was apparently stopped but not on the ground. Choice was struggling to break loose when Fletcher came in to clean up the play, not with a spear but with a hard hit.

Jason Campbell, the latest Raiders quarterback called upon to avoid a pass rush, was sacked by Titans rookie Derrick Morgan in the first quarter. Morgan came through the middle of the line, was pushed or blocked to the ground and pulled Campbell down by the knees. It was an 8-yard loss, until it became a 15-yard gain when referee Bill Levy ruled Morgan roughed Campbell by going after his legs. It was probably one of the least-violent tackles of the day, and yet it was penalized in an effort to protect the player.

(We won't even get into the roughing-the-kicker call on the Jets' Braylon Edwards on Monday night. I've seen butterflies land on flowers with more force.)

Again, interpretations. If those things happen during important moments of a playoff game, or even a close regular-season game, it's going to renew the whole debate about putting skirts on quarterbacks or kickers or even running backs. And that's unfortunate, because it undercuts the most serious concern. Officials should be doing whatever possible to protect players, especially their heads, and to focus on those minor collisions detracts from that priority.

It's a difficult balance, and the NFL is slowly awakening to the severity of the problem. But it's clear there needs to be some way to address -- through penalty or prevention -- the routine blows to the head that occur systematically in games and practice. This, more than a lineman's roll across a quarterback's ankles, is the central issue for the game's future.

[+] EnlargeChan Gailey
AP Photo/ Derek GeeDid Buffalo head coach Chan Gailey out-think himself at the end of the Bills' loss?

It's beyond important -- it's vital, to the sport as well as to those who play it. Monday's news that University of Pennsylvania linebacker Owen Thomas, who committed suicide in the spring, was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is the latest in a series of shiver-inducing revelations about the dangers of the sport. Thomas was 21, with no history of depression, when he took his own life.

The ripples spread. A 21-year-old Ivy League player is found to have the incapacitating (and, perhaps, mind-altering) disease that we previously associated only with those who played too long and too hard. First it was Chris Henry, a 26-year-old wide receiver, who spent most of his career on the periphery of the game's real violence. The Henry news was shocking; the Thomas news has the potential to bring the sport to its knees.

Hyperbole? There are high school teams near me that have changed their seasons from 11-man to 9-man football because of a lack of players. Another, a midsize high school that has fielded a football team for more than 50 years, had to cancel its varsity season. Is it the gradual softening of America's youth or a direct response to the increased awareness of injury risk? Dr. James Moriarty oversees medical care for Notre Dame's athletic department. He told the New York Times, "It's pretty hard to make the jump with one case. But if it's true that that happened, it would kill the sport. As a parent, it's going to be hard to justify kids going out and doing that."

Admittedly, connecting the interpretation of a legal catch to the alarming tie between the game and brain disease is tenuous at best. (Rambling discourse? Guilty.) But it all falls under the same heading: image, or reality? Can a league that goes out of its way to glorify violence retain credibility when it comes to decreasing it? Or is it content to employ lawyers to define catches and instruct refs to make sure a Brady-like knee injury is legislated out of the game? It's clear the NFL needs to step back and see the big picture. We know what we're seeing, no matter what we're told.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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