The seven points didn’t make a difference in the game, but the video evidence coupled with the failure to have a full-blown replay review on a third-quarter touchdown reception by Steelers tight end Vance McDonald left many fans confused — and plenty of Panthers fans feeling like their team had been screwed.
McDonald seemed to make the catch at the back of the end zone, but closer inspection of his hands raises a question of whether he actually caught it and/or maintained control of it. The play apparently was reviewed for the purposes of determining whether a full-blown replay review would occur, with a decision being made to not stop the game and watch the play to determine whether clear and obvious evidence existed that he failed to make the catch.
After the fact, NFL senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron tweeted an explanation of the decision: “Vance McDonald has two feet in bounds and never loses control of the football. The ball can move as long as the receiver never loses control. The ruling on the field is confirmed.”
The assertion that McDonald “never loses control of the football” overlooks the question of whether he ever actually secured control of the football. It appears that McDonald had the ball between his hands for an instant, before juggling the ball to a point where the ball was positioned between the inside of his left hand and the outside of his right hand, at which time the ball continued to move. While it never came loose, it looked like there was never clear control of the ball.
“In #CARvsPIT, @steelers TE Vance McDonald has two feet in bounds and never loses control of the football. The ball can move as long as the receiver never loses control. The ruling on the field is confirmed.” – AL pic.twitter.com/WnD43zcJrE
— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) November 9, 2018
The rulebook requires the player to “secures control of the ball in his hands or arms”; in this case, control was secured if at all on one of McDonald’s hands. Regardless, it’s still not clear that he ever actually secured control.
That doesn’t mean the ruling on the field would have been overturned if subject to full-blown review. After last year’s misadventures with frame-by-frame review (which resulted in multiple touchdown receptions being overturned when they shouldn’t have been), Riveron seems to be fully committed to the clear-and-obvious, fifty-drunks-in-a-bar standard for overturning a ruling on the field. Which is fine, but the same standard applies in reverse when deciding whether to conduct a full-blown replay review.
In other words, unless it’s clear and obvious that the ruling on the field is correct, the video evidence should be carefully probed for proof that the ruling on the field was clearly and obviously incorrect.
That should have happened here. The outcome of the play probably wouldn’t have changed. The outcome of the game definitely would have changed. But to the extent that the league wants fans to have confidence in the replay process, it needs to be used consistently and correctly in all instances, even when it looks like a game is out of reach.