The NFL has to get its act together before it's overwhelmed by minutiae.
This weekend's divisional games provided a clinic on what's wrong with the NFL's instant-replay system -- other than the mind-numbing dead time it adds to every game -- and its tangled web of picayune, often contradictory rules governing what is and is not possession of the spheroid.
Two of the four road teams won, the second time that has happened in three years but only the fourth time in the past quarter century.
The Pittsburgh Steelers came out blitzing (natch) and throwing (!!) and upset the regular season's best team, the Indianapolis Colts, in Indy, winning on the craziest sequence of events to end a playoff game since the Music City Miracle, and maybe since before that.
The Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears played the bone-jarring game everyone expected, and still managed to score 50 points, Carolina winning 29-21 on the road.
The two-time defending Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots, who never lose in the playoffs, went to Denver to play the Broncos, who never win in the playoffs, and the Broncos won. Convincingly. The Seattle Seahawks lost Shawn Alexander in the first half and still handled Washington.
And all anybody's talking about this week is the boneheaded instant-replay review that turned Troy Polamalu's obvious game-clinching interception against the Colts into an incomplete pass that let the Colts survive long enough to lose on über-accurate Mike Vanderjagt's shanked field-goal try, the third "No way!" play in a two-minute span, following Jerome Bettis' goal-line fumble and Ben Roethlisberger's game-saving, shoestring tackle.
If you're still reading at this point and you're not my mother, you must have seen this by now, but with five and a half minutes to go and the Steelers up 21-10, Polamalu intercepted a Peyton Manning pass at midfield. He tumbled over, got up to run and, while taking his first step, dropped the ball. He fell on it and stayed put.
I would submit that there isn't a football fan in the world who was watching that play who didn't think it was an interception. And I'm including Colts fans.
Colts coach Tony Dungy challenged because he had no choice. He was hoping for a crazy miracle. But at the time of the interception, not one Colts player argued that the play should have been ruled incomplete. The home crowd didn't boo.
When Polamalu caught the ball, the game clock read, "5:31." When he dropped it, the clock read, "5:29." CBS announcer Dick Enberg had time to say, "Intercepted by" before Polamalu dropped the ball, and he didn't say the first syllable till Polamalu had caught the ball in midair and hit the ground.
I timed the catch and drop with a stopwatch more than a dozen times, and it was within a few hundredths of a second of 1.4 every time. I clocked it using my DVR's slow motion feature, which I know slows the action down to one-fifth speed. It came out to 7.25, or five times 1.45.
What I'm saying is it was an interception.
The league, to its credit, eventually said the same thing, announcing on Monday that referee Pete Morelli had erred in overturning the interception call on replay.
But look what happened. Pretty much everybody else watching got it wrong too. Here's Enberg's partner, Dan Dierdorf, describing the replay: "He hits the ground -- oh, clearly he makes a football move. He rolls over a couple times holding the ball." Enberg also talked about Polamalu making a football move.
Google Polamalu's name and "football move" and behold all the bloggers and commentators talking about Polamalu making a "football move." I thought the NFL's "football move" rule about possession would govern the play.
"The rule regarding the performing of an act common to the game" -- commonly referred to as making a football move -- "applies when there is contact with a defensive player and the ball comes loose, which did not happen here," said Mike Pereira, the NFL vice president in charge of officiating, in the statement admitting Morelli's mistake.
The rules are too complicated and nonintuitive when fans, highly paid observers and even the league's own officials can't keep straight what is and is not possession of the football.
Why is it different when a guy's being hit and when he's not, or when he's in the end zone or out of it, or when he's going out of bounds or not? To paraphrase John Madden on fumbles, if it's a catch it's a doggone catch.
If everyone who's ever seen a football game can look at a play and agree it was a catch, and there's any possibility that a referee can call it a noncatch, even mistakenly, then the definition of a catch is too screwy.
Because admit it. When you heard Morelli overturn that call, you didn't think, "He got that wrong, he misinterpreted the rule," did you? You thought either, "Well, I guess I didn't understand the rule" or "That's a crazy rule."
And I'll bet it never occurred to you, watching Justin Gage of the Bears have the ball knocked away from him by a Panthers defender as soon as it hit his hands, that that was a completion and not a fumble because, for a gazillionth of a second, Gage had his knee on the ground with the defender touching him. That was the call -- on replay.
And when Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck decided at the last instant not to throw a pass, and the ball squirted out backward, it didn't dawn on you that that was an incomplete pass, did it? You momentarily forgot about the infamous tuck rule, right? Hasselbeck's arm was moving forward at one point, so it's a forward pass.
Although if he makes the exact same movement more slowly, swings his arm around and then laterals, it's going to be a fumble if the guy he laterals to drops it.
The combination of the NFL's Kafkaesque labyrinth of possession rules and the micro-officiating that results from the overuse of replay -- which was intended to protect teams from losing games on egregious calls and damn near caused the Steelers to lose on one Sunday -- turns NFL games, often at the most crucial moments, into something that doesn't resemble football as its fans and even its players know the game.
The NFL has to fix this. I don't know how exactly it can be codified, but it's about time the league gets back to a set of rules under which, if it looks like a catch, or an incompletion, or a fumble, or an interception, then doggone it, it is.
This story has been corrected since it was first published.
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