Thursday, October 28, 2010


By this time, you, like me, have seen the Ben Roethlisberger replay at the Miami goal line more often than you have fingers and toes to keep track of them all. It has been replayed almost as much as the Santonio Holmes controversial touchdown a couple seasons ago or Jerome Bettis' "Heads-tails call" on Thanksgiving day several seasons ago.

But now that we have had a chance to examine this modern day example of the "Zapruder Film" frame by frame, what have we learned from it?

ABOVE: The famous "Zapruder Film" frame #232 taken by a parade bystander during the Kennedy assassination in Dallas.

BELOW: Big Ben fumbles at the goal line last Sunday in Miami. Some people would put this on a par with Zapruder's famous footage!

Basically what I learned from it is that football has to have the most complicated set of rules of any game on the planet!

Let me see a show of hands: When you were watching that replay, you more than likely came to the same conclusion as the referee that the ball had come loose prior to crossing that mythical, invisible, creation of the NFL competition committee known today as "the plane". But how many of you expected to hear what came next in part two of Referee Gene Steratore's final ruling on the play? 

Just like I thought, no hands showing. As a result, this play will now be lodged forever in the Pantheon of bizarre Steeler plays that drew bizarre referee calls. Let's re-examine exactly how Steratore described this play:

"After further review, the ball had come loose before crossing the plane of the goal line," (loud cheer by Dolphins fans). "HOWEVER," (crowd falls silent) "We do not have clear evidence of the defense recovering the football. Therefore, the Steelers will maintain possession of the football at the half yard line. Fourth down," (Steeler fans go wild).

ABOVE: Tony Sparano berates one of the other officials (not Gene Steratore) who strayed too close to him on his side of the field. Steratore was presumably on the Pittsburgh sideline, choosing instead to break the good news to Mike Tomlin personally.

Of course while waiting for this verdict, anyone who's ever watched a football game before in his life, knew that the entire outcome of this game would hinge on Steratore's decision. But what a strange outcome! I never expected the fumble recovery to be taken away from the Dolphins either.

However the NFL has come out in support of the "Steratore Film".  Carl Johnson, the NFL vice president of officiating said on Wednesday that, "A crucial decision not to award anybody a recovery of a Ben Roethlisberger fumble was "properly handled through replay in the Pittsburgh Steelers' 23-22 win against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday." He also said the league, "Regretted another replay decision that took a touchdown away from the Minnesota Vikings."

But in this case, it was the infamous "goal line plane" that contributed to the confusion. As soon as Steratore saw Roethlisberger cross that invisible line he signaled an immediate touchdown. So no officials were going to worry about who recovered the ball. While it appeared that Miami had recovered it, Big Ben said that he, "Had an arm on it and the referee slapped him on the back to get up and said, 'It's a touchdown'". Roethlisberger said that he then let the ball go. "I didn't want to get my arm torn off or anything."

While the referee's call makes perfect sense in retrospect, it is the fact that once the player crossed the plane, that the touchdown was signaled and the play was ruled over... is where the competition committee has to get this rule straightened out. Even though it was a decision that gave the Steelers a win, I'm sure that if the shoe had been on the other foot that Steeler fans would have been screaming.

How is it that a play ends instantaneously once the ball crosses the plane of the end zone? My thinking is that the reason this rule exists is that the players would be savaging ball carriers once a player had entered into "The Promised Land". 

One other area where I feel the league is leaving itself wide open for criticism is having an official from a home town refereeing a game for his home team. While Gene Steratore apparently did nothing wrong in the eyes of the NFL, it would have been better is the referee's place of residence had nothing to do with the call that determined who would win this football game.

Steratore's a great official and I'm proud that he's from Pittsburgh and an NFL ref. But he's got enough things to worry about if he's even officiating San Francisco and Oakland. Why add another layer for people to potentially criticize his decisions?