Thank god for Brandon Graham. It was his effectively game-sealing strip-sack of Tom Brady—an actual, incontrovertible football play, a display of the kind of strength and athleticism and determination that bring us to the sport in the first place, a moment for which there was no reason to doubt your lying eyes or consult the NFL’s infinitely mutable rulebook—at the night’s biggest moment that helped erase the growing sense that what had been a glorious Super Bowl might yet become another casualty of the plague of video replay.
The game itself was a classic. There were dozens of great individual plays (nearly all of them on offense) and record-setting numbers of yards and points over which Eagles fans can delight and Patriots fans can despair. And yet in spite of each of the awesome moments that preceded Graham’s sack, the most acute emotional experience of the game had to be the utter terror and bewilderment that coursed through football fans’ bodies as the referees reviewed whether Zach Ertz’s obvious touchdown catch met the nonsensical standards of an NFL touchdown catch.
Al Michaels’s call of the play is itself a perfect encapsulation of everything wrong with both the league’s ambiguous rules and instant replay in sports overall. Immediately as the play develops, Michaels is thrilled by the throw, the catch, and Ertz’s leap across the goal line and into the end zone. Yet right as he should be cresting fully into that feeling of wonderment—when we should be—he tempers his emotion. “And again,” Michaels intones with all the exhilaration of an auditor double-checking someone’s taxes, “all you can think back to now is the Jesse James play with Pittsburgh. Does he complete the process?”
What “the process” of a catch even means is completely inscrutable, and there was absolutely no way of predicting what decisions the referees might come up with. Did Ertz’s bobbling of the ball as he dove into the end zone mean the pass you’d just seen him catch was technically incomplete? Were the three steps he took before diving enough to transition him through the tenuous process of catching the ball and put him into the more solid territory of runnerhood? When did he gain “possession” of the ball? Did he have “possession”? If so, was the play actually a fumble? In that case, did recovering it in the end zone mean the play should be ruled a touchdown anyway? And yeah, how was this different from the Jesse James non-catch of just a couple months ago?
Less important than what felt right or just was the knowledge that there was no consistent basis by which these decisions are made. The catch itself had been robbed of all its inherent excitement and existed only as text to be parsed for its constituent parts which would then be measured against the refs’ interpretation the rulebook. Football play-as-Supreme Court decision, basically. With all the dry, legalistic, confounding implications that entails.
The NFL being the NFL, the most fitting result would’ve been a broad consensus that the catch was clearly a valid catch and then the officials overturning it. Even Cris Collinsworth was certain it would be ruled incomplete right up to the point the ref addressed the crowd and upheld the call on the field. Even though the referees came to right conclusion on the call, the damage had been done. It was yet another instance of football’s potential for complete epistemological ruination.
The Ertz review wasn’t the first time replay detracted from the action. Corey Clement’s third-quarter touchdown grab was also subject to a tedious review process that in its way was even more unsatisfying.
In live time, Clement appeared to successfully snag a pass near the back of the end zone and take a few steps in bounds before crashing to the ground for a big touchdown catch. Patriots linebacker Marquis Flowers sort of half-heartedly motioned that the pass was incomplete, but there didn’t seem like much to complain about. Then the play was reviewed. When slowed down and zoomed in to degrees impossible to see with the human eye in real time, it looked like Clement didn’t quite have the ball completely in his control while he tapped his toes in bounds.
According to the rules about catching the ball and staying in bounds that I (think I) know, Clement’s catch probably should’ve been overturned. Instead, the referee said the ruling on the field would stand. It made for a bizarre scenario: What you first thought was a catch was eventually ruled a catch, but only after you’d been given reason to think it was not actually a catch.
While both big replay decisions could’ve ruined the game—and not on the basis of whether each call was reviewed correctly or incorrectly in any individual’s mind, but rather because of how the act of review itself becomes the medium through which everything that happens on the field is experienced—thankfully Graham got to Brady. The sack-fumble was clear and real and you could feel what it meant without needing anyone to verify these things. (Though it’s not like the Patriots haven’t benefitted before from a previously little-known rule applied, arguably erroneously, in similar circumstances...)
Between the game-threatening replays and the scary concussions for Brandin Cooks and Patrick Chung, it’s fitting that a game that showcased the very best football has to offer also presented the worst.