We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
With less than 30 seconds to go in the AFC title game and the Baltimore Ravens down by three, quarterback Joe Flacco threw a back-shoulder pass to the right corner of the end zone. The pass was incomplete, knocked out of his receiver's hands by a Patriots cornerback. In the blur of real-time action, CBS's Jim Nantz shouted that "it was Sterling Moore who took it away from Torrey Smith." A moment later, Nantz corrected himself: The guy who lost the ball was Lee Evans.
On CBS's replay, with the players' movements slowed down to a comprehensible speed, the order of operations became clearer. In super slo-mo, you can see Evans cradle the ball, land on his right foot, and get the ball raked away as his left foot touches the ground. According to the NFL rule, "If a player controls the ball while in the end zone, both feet, or any part of his body other than his hands, must be completely on the ground before losing control, or the pass is incomplete." If you apply that definition, the replay revealed that Evans kind of caught the ball for maybe a touchdown ... and maybe he kind of didn't.
The NFL uses instant replay to clear up this sort of uncertainty—a play rendered indecipherable by the fog of athletes at top speed. Earlier in the fourth quarter, replay showed—eventually, after a search for a camera that managed to peer through a tangle of 300-pound bodies—that Tom Brady's knee had come down inches short of the end zone on a quarterback sneak. The call on the field was overturned. Justice had been done. Two plays later, Brady leaped over the line to score a legitimate, non-overturnable touchdown. At least it was obvious that it was non-overturnable after they showed a bunch more replays, all of which showed Brady extend the ball across the goal line.
But in the case of the Evans catch/non-catch, the league's replay apparatchiks chose not to initiate a review. I'd like to think that the guys upstairs decided not to buzz down because the slow-motion replays were so philosophically troubling. In real time, it looked like it wasn't a touchdown. When you slowed it down to a speed that humans didn't actually move, it looked like it could have been a catch. Do we get to a deeper truth by scrutinizing a play one frame at a time, or is it fairer to evaluate the action at full speed? What does it mean for one's feet to "be completely on the ground"? And what is possession, anyway? Also, can we please rehash the metaphysics of that earlier Ravens touchdown, when Torrey Smith reached across a goal line that extends all the way around the world?
By the time the replay guys could work through all that, I'm guessing, the game would have been over for an hour.
The real explanation for the lack of a review was more mundane. "The ruling on the field of an incomplete pass was confirmed by the Instant Replay assistant, correctly, and as a result, there was no need to stop the game," the league explained in a post-game statement. "The receiver did not get his second foot down in the end zone with possession, and as a result, it was an incomplete pass." The replay was so clear, the league would have you think, that a replay wasn’t necessary at all.
A few minutes after Moore knocked the ball out of Evans's hands, Baltimore lost the game after a missed 32-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff. In the aftermath of the Ravens' loss, the commentary on the missed touchdown shifted. What had been so unclear to Jim Nantz as he watched it live quickly transformed into a narrative of missed opportunity.
On NFL.com, they labeled the throw that Sterling Moore jarred out as "Evans's dropped pass." On the CBS post-game show, Shannon Sharpe said that "in the National Football League, professional football players … you've got to make this play." "He relaxed," Sharpe added, noting a change in Evans's demeanor during the millisecond before Moore's right arm came down on him like a guillotine. If Lee Evans is able to relax during that less-than-a-moment, I'm guessing he has little trouble falling asleep on an airplane.
Sharpe found his own kind of certainty in that slow-motion replay. So did Phil Simms. "That was an incomplete pass," the CBS color man declared authoritatively after watching Evans and Moore come together, slowly, in the end zone. And so too, surprisingly, did Lee Evans, when reporters asked him if it was a catch. "Obviously it wasn't," he said . "It was an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl, and I let it go."
But Lee Evans knew less than anyone else about what had happened to him in the corner of the Patriots' end zone. A football game moves too fast for the guys who are playing it to know what's happening to them or around them. Dozens of times each season, a player pleads with his coach to challenge a call that should not be challenged: He thinks he caught the ball, but it really hit the ground. In this case, Evans thought he didn't catch a ball that he might have actually caught. The one thing the Ravens receiver did grasp correctly was the post-game narrative. Like everyone else, he thought he'd cost his team a shot at the Super Bowl. No matter how much you slowed down the replay, that story wasn't going to change.