According to NFL rules, not all catches are actually caught.
Dez Bryant and the Dallas Cowboys learned this the hard way when an apparent reception was overturned after a replay review at a crucial moment in their NFC divisional-round playoff clash against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday. On a fourth-and-2 play from the Packers' 32-yard line with his team trailing 26-21 deep into the fourth quarter, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo lofted a high pass toward Bryant as he ran up the sideline. The standout wideout leapt over a defender and appeared to catch the ball, setting up a first-and-goal situation.
As Bryant fell to ground after the grab, his momentum carried him toward the goal line. He reached for go-ahead touchdown, but the ball popped from his grasp as he skidded into the end zone.
The play was initially ruled a completion by officials, but the call was challenged by the Packers. After a replay review, referee Gene Steratore announced that the call had been overturned, noting that Bryant failed to maintain possession of the ball through the process of going to the ground.
Via The Associated Press, here is the wording of the NFL rule applied on the controversial moment:
"If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete."
NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino addressed the play on Twitter:
Bryant going to the ground. By rule he must hold onto it throughout entire process of contacting the ground. He didn't so it is incomplete.
— Dean Blandino (@DeanBlandino) January 11, 2015
Bryant's reaction summed up the way that many viewers felt after the decision.
— SB Nation (@SBNation) January 11, 2015
"I had possession of the ball coming down," Bryant said after the game, via The Dallas Morning News. "That's possession, right? One, two, reach. Bam, that's possession."
While some were critical of the replay reversal, others felt the officials correctly enforced a rule that doesn't make much sense.
It's a dumb rule. But thats the way it's been called ever since Calvin Johnson in Chicago.
— Tony Dungy (@TonyDungy) January 11, 2015
I by no means cheer for Dallas but I have no idea what or how thts not called a catch . Thts a joke
— Odell Beckham Jr (@OBJ_3) January 11, 2015
— Deion Sanders (@DeionSanders) January 11, 2015
What is the definition of a catch or not in the NFL? I really wanna know? No one can answer the ?
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 11, 2015
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Dez Bryant caught the ball in the air, took THREE steps then dived. Made a FB play after catching it, did he not?
— John Kryk (@JohnKryk) January 11, 2015
Again, it's a dumb rule and probably should be changed, but per current NFL rules - the ref made the correct call: pic.twitter.com/ZtwpjDKnV8
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) January 11, 2015
The overturned call gave the ball back to the Packers, who held on for the win.
"It was fourth-and-2, and obviously they ruled it a catch on the field," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said after his team's defeat, via ESPN. "This game wasn't about officiating at all. That certainly was a big play in the ballgame. It looked to me like Dez had two feet down and made a move common to the game, which is a thing they talk about a lot."
Officiating controversies followed the Cowboys throughout their postseason trip, with a key call going in their favor in a wild card win over the Detroit Lions. In that game, officials picked up a flag thrown against the Cowboys for pass interference at a crucial moment.
In addition to be on the wrong end of a disputed officiating decision that benefitted the Cowboys a week earlier, the Lions were connected to this decision in Green Bay by way of Calvin Johnson. The unpopular rule applied to Bryant's attempted catch is widely referred to as the "Calvin Johnson Rule."
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) January 11, 2015