Did Baltimore Raven receiver Lee Evans catch a 19-yard TD pass from QB Joe Flacco with 24-seconds remaining in yesterday’s AFC Championship game against the New England Patriot’s in Foxborough? Or was the ball stripped by Patriot’s cornerback Sterling Moore? Obviously, since it is the Patriots headed to Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI to take on the New York Giants in a replay of the 2007 title game, the officials ruled it an incomplete pass.
The call was granted even greater significance when, with the Pats leading 23-20, Raven’s placekicker Billy Cundiff undeniably duck-hooked what would have been the game-tying 32-yard field goal on an ensuing snap, ending the Raven’s season, and ensuring him induction into the NFL’s Hall of Pain alongside Buffalo Bill placekicker Scott Norwood whose missed 47-yard field goal at the end of Super Bowl XXV against the New York Giants led to four consecutive Super Bowl losses for the Bills. At least Norwood’s kick barely missed from a long distance. Cundiff’s malard wasn’t even within quacking distance from all but gimme range for a pro.
But let’s return to the matter of the Lee Evans catch/non-catch. With slow motion replay now in place, it is possible to autopsy NFL plays to a degree which is both beyond the scope of the human eye to resolve at game speed, and at the same time, to alter almost any call beyond the comfort level of even the most die-hard fan to accept.
When dissected in super slo-mo, Evans can be seen cradling Flacco’s back-shoulder pass as he lands on his right foot, but just as his left foot is contacting the ground, the Patriot’s savior, Sterling Moore, chops the pigskin from his grasp, sending it harmlessly to the ground. According to the NFL rule, “If a player controls the ball while in the end zone, both feet, or any part of his body other than his hands, must be completely on the ground before losing control, or the pass is incomplete.” By that reading, the replay can be whatever you want it to be. What does “completely” mean in that context? At what point is completely complete? And that’s the problem. Even definitive replay isn’t definitive. And don’t get me started on holding calls or pass interference, much less New England’s original gift, the Tuck Rule from the Raider’s game ten years ago which made what looked like an obvious fumble by Tom Brady somehow become an incomplete pass leading to Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning, snow-blinded 45-yard field goal which sent the Pats off to their first of three Super Bowl titles.
Point being, whether it is football, baseball (you tell me what the strike zone is and how it is evenly applied), basketball (how many steps in traveling?), almost every sport which includes judging will leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth from time to time. But that rarely, if ever, happens in track and field.
In racing it is as simple as Point A to Point B, first one in wins. And we have the photo and computer technology to determine that outcome to the thousandth of a second. In throwing it’s as obvious as ‘how far’? Farthest wins. And in jumping and vaulting it’s even easier. “You, jump that.” “Okay, you try.” Top dog wins.
While we might be disappointed with the outcome of a competition based on our rooting interests, in track and field it is rare we feel cheated by the process. It is the purity of the sport, the lack of judges and outside influences that makes the outcome feel so clean (I am not talking drug cheats here).
So often in sport it’s because the coach didn’t put you in, or the quarterback didn’t throw you the ball, or a myriad of other factors which makes the entire enterprise feel greasy or unsatisfying. Not so in the purest of all sports. It is the lesson we all learn when we compete. Try hard, because the effort is all you can control. Once that is given, the result is relatively easy to accept, because nobody was involved in the outcome other than you and the other guy. If all kids ran track, they’d come to an easier, more durable sense of life’s fairness, the components of success, and the building process which leads to it.
That said, I think if yesterday’s AFC Championship was being played in Baltimore, maybe Lee Evans and his purple people would be the ones heading to Indy to take on Eli Manning and the Giants. The Pats got handed two gifts. Now let’s see if they can capitalize on them in two weeks.