This was the greatest catch of Dez Bryant's life, one destined to be replayed over and over. Bryant's leaping, last-second, 37-yard touchdown grab was going to seal a victory for the Cowboys after they'd trailed the Giants 23-0. The catch was acrobatic and it was self-sacrificing, an all-out dive that left the receiver lurching in pain, unable to launch a celebratory spike before he wobbled and collapsed flat on his back. "And it is … a miracle touchdown for Bryant!" Fox's Thom Brennaman shouted, declaring victory for Dallas after pausing briefly to watch the back judge and side judge nod at each other and raise their arms in unison.
That's why the catch was great, and that's why it was destined to be replayed over and over: It came in the back of the end zone, and all scoring plays are reviewed. Thirty seconds after his backside smashed into Cowboys Stadium's synthetic turf, Fox showed a high-definition, slow-motion replay of Bryant cradling the ball in his left hand as the tip of his right hand landed a centimeter out of bounds. "Looks like it lands on the line," said Fox's color guy, Troy Aikman. Then the network showed two more replays. Then a commercial break. And now we're back, and it's Mike Pereira from the Fox Command Center. "I think the fingers are out of bounds," the officiating guru said. Then we got a shot from "Fox Super Zoom": Bryant's fingers were out of bounds. And then, after a final slow-motion replay, referee Scott Green came on screen to confirm what we already knew: "The receiver's hand touched out of bounds."
This is the NFL in the slo-mo, HD age. We have the technology to determine whether someone's fingernail lands on one side or another of a white stripe. What we can't do is get that answer as it's happening, at the moment we're holding our breath. Miracle touchdowns no longer exist. What we have now are provisional miracles, plays that must be scrutinized before they're sanctified. The Immaculate Reception is under further review.
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Fifteen years ago, when
the NFL was on an instant-replay interregnum, the Bryant catch would have played out differently. We would have seen the leap and the catch and the officials nodding at each other before they raised their arms. Brennaman would have shouted, "A miracle touchdown for Bryant!" And that would have been the last word. The Cowboys win. Romo to Bryant. The Comeback in Cowboys Stadium. What a game.
That outcome would've been both incorrect and a lot more satisfying. In the fuzzier days of standard definition, we couldn't have been sure where Bryant's hand had really landed. If Thom Brennaman says it's a touchdown, give the Cowboys six points.
But there's no bliss without ignorance. The incorrect outcome is satisfying only so long as you don't know it's the incorrect outcome. This is why Major League Baseball is gradually, inexorably ridding itself of "the human element." The men in blue, unaided by television replays, are now the only people on earth who don't know if a ball is fair or foul. This cannot stand, and MLB has been forced to expand its use of instant replay. If we can figure out the right answer, we owe it to the players and to ourselves to implement that right answer. This is the price of HD: certainty in lieu of spontaneity.
For the NFL, this is a heavy price to pay. Pro football is a television product, and the quest for certainty does not make for good TV. The league's solution to this problem is to manufacture spontaneous outbursts of joy after the fact. In NFL Films' America's Gamedocumentary about the Saints' run to the Super Bowl XLIV title, we see Reggie Bush dive for the pylon in the NFC championship game. In the next shot, Saints coach Sean Payton screams, "Touchdown, yes!" NFL Films wants you to think Payton is celebrating because Bush has just scored a touchdown. In reality, the coach is screaming because he's just challenged the refs' ruling that it wasn't a touchdown, and he's convinced he's going to win that challenge. Payton was right. The refs eventually changed the call, and the crowd in the Superdome finally got to let loose. But NFL Films bowdlerized out all of that indecision—today's great touchdowns don't look how great touchdowns are supposed to look.
The death of instant gratification wasn't an issue in 1982, and it won't be an issue in 2042. Zebras are an endangered species. Computers now make the line calls in tennis. Soon, they'll be able to tell us when a wide receiver's finger is out of bounds. (Added bonus for the NFL: They won't require a pension plan.)
In the meantime, we're stuck with technology that's just good enough to ruin one of the best catches a wide receiver will ever make. Three decades ago, that was a touchdown. Three decades from now, we'll move on to the next play before the announcer can say a word. Today, we're left waiting, promised a miracle when we can't be sure what we've really got.
Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.