We’ve seen referees measure for a first down a billion times. But it’s rare to see what referee Gene Steratore did during the Cowboys’ win over the Raiders on Sunday night when a Dallas first down was too close to call.
He measured it with a folded-up piece of paper.
Here’s how a folded index card decided the outcome of Cowboys vs. Raiders on Sunday Night Football.
With under six minutes left in the game that was knotted up at 17-17, the Cowboys were facing fourth-and-1 on their own 39. Dak Prescott ran a quarterback sneak. It looked like he got a first down, but it was so close that it was impossible to be sure without measuring.
But even the chains couldn’t get the job done. The chain gang came out, and the front edge of the ball came right up to the inside edge of the stick. But was it close enough for a first down? It was too hard to tell with the naked eye.
So Steratore put a folded index card in between the ball and the stick, and it touched.
That apparently meant it was a first down, no matter how close of a call it was. The Cowboys kept the drive alive and topped it off with a Dan Bailey field goal to take a 20-17 lead.
This was the difference in a critical game for both teams.
This game was a must-win for Dallas and Oakland to keep their playoff hopes alive. The first down let the Cowboys keep driving for what ended up being the winning score in a game that ended with Derek Carr fumbling out of the end zone.
The Cowboys improved to 8-6 with the win. They’re still just on the outside of the playoff picture, behind the Lions and the Seahawks. But that little piece of paper kept them in the mix.
The Raiders fell to 6-8. While they’re not officially eliminated yet, the loss effectively ended their season.
Why did Steratore use an index card?
Steratore said after the game that the index card didn’t make the decision for him. He established that Prescott had gotten the first down because he could see that the tip of the ball was touching the pole. The card just confirmed it.
“The ball was touching the pole,” Steratore said, via The Athletic’s Vic Tafur. “I put the card in there, and as soon as it touched, it was nothing more than a reaffirmation. The decision was made based on my visual from the top looking down and the ball touching the front of the pole.”
Whenever Steratore calls a Cowboys game, controversy seems to follow. He hasn’t worked a Cowboys game since he ruled that Dez Bryant did not, in fact, catch a touchdown pass that doomed Dallas to lose a playoff game against the Packers following the 2014 season.
Cowboys fans aren’t likely to forget that one. But maybe Sunday night’s paper-assisted first down evens things out a bit.
What does the NFL’s rule book say?
Former Raiders receiver Rod Streater raised a fair question.
Is that in the rule book?!? He pulled out an index card— Rod Streater (@rodstreater80) December 18, 2017
The rule book doesn’t say a single thing about supplementing measurements with index cards. All it says is that the officials should determine field position with the “forward part of the ball.”
The forward part of the ball in its position when it is declared dead in the field of play shall be the determining point in measuring any distance gained or lost. The ball shall be rotated so that its long axis is parallel to the sidelines before measuring, while maintaining the forward most point.
The officials did that. They just needed a little help determining how close it was to the marker with a piece of paper.
Has this ever happened before?
Yes, surprisingly. Four years ago, referee Bill Vinovich used a card to see if the Browns converted a fourth-and-4 in the fourth quarter of a close game with the Ravens. Vinovich decided the Browns were short, and the Ravens went on to win 14-6.
“Though it is very unusual to see the referee use a card to aid in the measurement, there is nothing that prohibits it in the rules,” NFL spokesman Michael Signora told the Akron Beacon Journal.
How did the Cowboys react?
Prescott didn’t think it was necessary for Steratore to measure with an index card.
"He didn't have to do all that,” Prescott said after the game. “I got it and it wasn't that close, but yeah that was interesting him measuring with the paper."
Jerry Jones thinks the index card needs to be preserved for future generations.
Jerry Jones was asked if Gene Steratore’s folded measurement paper needs to be sent to Canton. “That’s a great idea.” #cowboyswire— David Helman (@HelmanDC) December 18, 2017
And Jason Garrett was as surprised as the rest of us.
What did the Raiders say?
Jack Del Rio was, predictably, not happy.
JDR on the index card ruling on 4th and inches: “I don’t want to get fined.” Has never heard of an index card being used in that situation.— Scott Bair (@BairNBCS) December 18, 2017
“Never seen air like that and it somehow got turned into a first down,” Del Rio said after the game. “The air between the ball and the stick. That's sure short and it goes the other way. Period."
NaVorro Bowman agreed. He didn’t think it was a first down.
"There still was space between the ball and the stick." - NaVorro Bowman https://t.co/missEUa8wk— Paul Gutierrez (@PGutierrezESPN) December 18, 2017
But the paper measurement approach was good enough for the refs. The Cowboys got a first down, and it saved their season with a win that keeps their wild card hopes alive.