The NFL continues to struggle with when and how a play ends.
We saw it in Week 10, in the Cowboys-Eagles game, regarding a key moment that highlights (at best for the NFL) a curious loophole between a runner who is down by contact and a receiver who has completed the act of catching the ball when going to the ground. A similar play happened again last night.
With the Broncos-Bills game tied at 15 and 7:45 to play in the fourth quarter, Denver faced third and four from the Buffalo 17. Quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass to receiver Courtland Sutton. Sutton was immediately hit and driven to the ground by cornerback Rasul Douglas.
The ruling on the field was that Sutton's forward progress had been stopped, and that he had gained enough yardage for a first down. The decision glossed over the question of whether Sutton had actually completed the act of catching the pass.
Here’s the recent article regarding the inherent conflict in the rules between a runner who is down by contact and a receiver who is going to the ground when catching a pass, and must retain possession after hitting the ground in order to finish the completion. The twist last night came from the decision by the officials that Sutton: (1) had actually completed the act of catching the pass to become a "runner"; and (2) was held or otherwise restrained so that his forward progress had ended.
But Sutton had not finished the act of catching the pass. He took two steps as he fell to the ground. When he hit the ground, Douglas ripped the ball out.
The play should have been ruled an incomplete pass, and the Broncos should have faced fourth and four from the Buffalo 17. Instead, the Broncos got a first down — and they finished the drive with a touchdown.
The other problem is that the officials didn't do a very good job of explaining the situation. The broadcast didn't have much of a chance to delve into it, either, because the game kept on going.
With all the crazy things that happened at the end of the game, this is a moment that will easily be overlooked. It shouldn't be. The officials don't seem to be following the rules that apply when a receiver is going to the ground. The play can't be over, by rule, until he has (or hasn't) held onto the ball after hitting the ground.