The NFL rulebook is fair in the sense that every team in the league is subject to its madness in equal measure. It works perfectly fine, because everyone for the most part understands it, and it doles out miracles and heartbreak indiscriminately.
But — Ha! Ha! Ha! — get a load of this stupid document. On Sunday, two important games were determined by arguably the two worst rules in the book.
The Steelers hosted the Patriots in a game that would give the winner an inside lane to the AFC No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Pittsburgh appeared to score a late go-ahead touchdown, but referees determined that tight end Jesse James “did not survive the ground” — which is an apocalyptic way of saying that James was going to the ground as he made the catch and did not maintain possession at the end of the play.
A few hours later, the Raiders were driving on the Cowboys with their playoff hopes in the balance. Quarterback Derek Carr scrambled right and dove for the pylon, then he let go of the ball so that it bounced over the goal line and out of the end zone. By rule, it was a Raiders turnover and a touchback for the Cowboys:
What makes these plays infuriating is that referees probably got them right. James does appear to lose control of the football, and if the receiver can’t control the ball through the ground then the NFL rulebook is very clear that that is an incomplete pass. There is a fair argument that there wasn’t indisputable evidence that James lost the football, but I understand why refs made the determination they did.
The play that Carr made is cut-and-dry: The ball came out before the goal line and rolled out of the end zone. If the ball had dribbled out just before the end zone, the Raiders would have been set up with first-and-inches-to-go. Instead, the Cowboys forced a turnover without ever actually touching the football, then were rewarded with a free 20 yards.
(Those yards mattered. The Cowboys had plenty of space to execute a clock-killing kneel-down after taking over possession. They would have had to run a real play and risked a safety if they had taken over at their own goal line.)
What happened is all there in 92 pages of black and white.
I’m somewhat sympathetic to the NFL here. Football is a sport with 22 large moving parts on any play, and that creates a lot of contingencies that need to be covered by the rules. If Sunday’s game-changing rulings were weird, that’s largely because they’re rare.
The definition of a catch has had layer upon layer added to it to the point that no one intuitively knows what a “catch” is any more, but the bright side is refs now have a proper “If A, then B” rubric to use whenever they need to go to super slow-motion video review. The fumble rule exists because the league keeps forgetting to change it, like it’s a basement light bulb.
Convoluted or archaic rules aren’t necessarily a bad thing — football is endlessly complex, and that hasn’t stopped it from becoming the country’s biggest sport. Rules need revisiting from time to time, however, especially when they get in the way of a fun thing from happening.
That was the biggest problem Sunday. James and Carr did exactly what any non-nihilistic fan would want them to do. And for making extra efforts, both players were disproportionately punished. Both could have tucked the ball and fallen around the 1-yard line, putting their teams in great positions to win. Instead, by doing the very things that coaches, fans, and the sport itself encourage them to do, they hastened losing efforts.
Rules are dumb when they violate the spirit of the game and human nature. A subsection of people will say that good players should understand the rules in all situations and at all points on the field, to which I counter: Man, that’s lame. James and Carr both acted on instinct to make great plays.
In the NFL’s explanation of James’ “drop” Al Riveron even says that the pass was “complete” and that the tight end broke the goal line — only in the extenuation of “completing the process” was it not a score. Carr, meanwhile, made a smart, gutsy play to pick up a first down with his legs — he had several good runs on the day, in fact — and “smart, gutsy” football should be the NFL’s apotheosis.
I don’t have any hard fixes. I would like to see the catch rule stripped and reconstructed in a way that what counts on the field aligns with what we feel in our bones. And there are a number of ways to fix the end zone fumble rule that are imperfect but much better than what we have.
Mostly I want to take a moment to marvel at all this. The NFL is a $14 billion business whose parity has created razor-thin margins to determine success and failure. And in the span of a few hours, the fate of four teams were significantly altered by two artifacts of extreme bureaucracy — one a committee-flattened piece of legislation; the other a glitch that has gone long overlooked because people were too busy over-boiling the first thing.
Those few hours were the NFL in a nutshell: a league whose players might make it great again, if it ever were proactive enough to let them. The NFL is a wholly reactionary enterprise, however. That’s what happens when your only mission is to protect your money. That’s why Roger Goodell was generously re-upped.
But yes, the NFL rulebook is fair and fine. It may be stupid — so, so stupid — but at least it’s an indiscriminate stupid; one that splatters stupid upon everything like a haywire sprinkler. And we can all point at that sprinkler and pretty much agree that it’s stupid, so at least the NFL’s brand of stupid fosters solidarity.
That’s where we are: The NFL is so big, and dumb, and wearying that “indiscriminately stupid” has become the nicest way it can describe itself.