Patriots vs. Ravens AFC Championship, 22 Jan 2012: Evans drop…or catch?

In the NFL (officiating practice, not the rulebook) toe = foot, and toes = feet

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Why it (probably) wasn’t a catch according to the NFL rulebook:
On why merely touching both feet to the ground while in possession of the football is not enough to rule the play a completion, see Part 2: Did Lee Evans make the catch?, at causalsportsfan.wordpress.com. Aside from the question of whether touching a toe is sufficient when the rulebook specifies that a foot must be “completely on the ground” to qualify (Though toe drag catches are routinely allowed.) there is an additional requirement that the player maintain possession after having achieved the basic two feet “or any part of the body other than the hands” touched down requirement.

Author of Causal Sports Fan, Tyler Williams, quotes a relevant NFL rulebook article which he identifies as “Article 3 Completed or Intercepted Pass” which specifies that after having touched both feet to the ground possession must be maintained long enough to perform “any act common to the game.” This phrase seems frighteningly similar to the dreaded ex-rulebook phrase “a football move” which once had football fans hanging effigies of officials and burning rulebooks across the nation. The phrase any act common to the game is certainly vague and open to interpretation even though it is illustrated with the following examples

pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.

Notably, the first two examples don’t apply to an offensive player in the offensive team’s end zone. The others could apply under certain circumstances. Does this rule apply to an offensive player in his team’s end zone?

The following stipulation from the same rulebook article may be relevant to the case at hand, but its wording makes application of it a guessing game.

If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body other than his hands to the ground, or if there is any doubt that the acts were simultaneous, it is not a catch.

In addition to the question of whether it is applicable in the end zone, this portion of the article appears to be (due to sloppy wording) both too restricted and ambiguous. Restricted because “touching both feet” probably ought to read something like “touching both feet or touching the second foot after the first had already touched” to cover more real game circumstances. That’s what I think it means, but doesn’t say. The sentence is ambiguous because the word “simultaneously” is poorly placed. It should come closer to the beginning of the sentence: “If the player simultaneously loses the ball while…”

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Some have questioned whether Evans had or placed his left foot down immediately after receiving the pass. This would have made the toe touch with his left foot the third step, and unnecessary to qualify the play as a catch. The above sequence of screen shots, however, indicate that his left foot was a few inches off the ground at the moment the pass arrived in his arms (Unfortunately, the quality of the first two is not very good. I’ll try to replace these with better). There’s no question that following the reception he maintained possession as his right foot made contact. Then came the questionable toe touch with his left foot, the required second foot.

Evans was vulnerable to being stripped as he was running backwards and trying to turn around. I’m not convinced by the argument of some Evans-bashers that he was turning to celebrate, rather than focusing on protecting the ball. Replays show that he does begin to raise his arms slightly just prior to the strip, but it’s hard to interpret that as the beginning of celebration. Though he was already in the end zone when he caught the ball it was only natural that he turn away from the defender to protect both himself and the ball in the event of a hit. While he failed to accomplish this I think you have to credit Moore for a great play, for seeing the opportunity, deciding to take the chance, and executing the strip successfully. If stripping the ball were easy you’d see it happen far more often. The likelihood of jarring the ball loose with a hit probably would have been slim. But Moore made a huge gamble with the game on the line. If he hadn’t stripped the ball, everyone would be asking why he hadn’t crunched the guy.

Final notes:

  • Until the playoffs, Lee Evans wasn’t much of a factor this year, his first for the Baltimore Ravens. He had only four receptions in nine games for a total of  74 yards. According to pro-football-reference.com, Evans has the 10th highest career yards per catch average among active players. His 6,008 career receiving yards rank 23rd, active.
  • Billy Cundiff, who shortly after the Evans drop missed a 32 yard field goal which would have tied the game, is ranked 31 of 34 among eligible active kickers in career field goal percentage at 76.7% (pro-football-reference.com). But even so he’s only about 10% behind the leader, and about 5% below the average of the 34.
  • Cundiff’s miss of the 32 yarder probably silenced most critics of the decision not to go for a 50 yard attempt earlier in the quarter, with under 3 minutes remaining in the game. But for those doubters: At 50+ yards Cundiff has a career percentage of 29.41% (regular season). This year during the regular season he made only one of six tries at 50+ yds, 16.67%.

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