Aside from his decision to onside kick the ball with nearly three minutes left, Jim Caldwell’s most criticized moment from Week 8’s game against the Houston Texans was when he decided not to challenge a play. Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins had caught a pass, but Detroit Lions cornerback Johnson Bademosi jarred the ball loose and Tavon Wilson scooped it and started running in the other direction. The officials ruled that the play was an incomplete pass even though it looked at full-speed like it could have been a fumble. As FOX announcers yelled for a challenge flag, we watched Jim Caldwell patiently wait for a replay and word from his coaches in the booth. Caldwell actually reached for the flag, but never threw it.
After the game, Caldwell admitted he did not get to see a replay of the catch and relied on his coaches in the booth for guidance. “Our guys upstairs had a chance to look at it, and did not think it was a catch,” he said.
On Monday, Caldwell remained adamant that his coaches made the right call and the play would not have been overturned. “They would not have overturned that,” Caldwell said confidently in his Monday press conference after looking at the play himself.
But is that true? Here’s a closer look at the play to see if Caldwell and his crew of coaches made the right call to hold onto their challenge flag.
First, let’s look at the rulebook as to what constitutes a catch. I know we’ve been over this time and time again, but it’s worth a refresher.
The NFL released a video this year trying to break down a catch into three parts: controlling the ball, getting two feet down and becoming a runner. The first two parts are easy to see and diagnose. The third one is less clear. When does a player establish himself as a runner? Here’s what the rulebook says:
A player has the ball long enough to clearly become a runner when, after his second foot is on the ground, he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up field, or taking additional steps.
This is where the colloquial nomenclature “football move” comes in. Though that’s technically not in the rulebook, essentially if the receiver is “capable” of avoiding contact, turning upfield or tucking the ball away, he is a runner and has completed the process of a catch.
So is that what we have here? Did Hopkins complete to process?
Unfortunately, we don’t have a great look at the play thanks to FOX’s broadcast team. They did provide four different replays of the catch, but played them all at full speed. Let’s try to slow it down and figure this one out:
There’s no doubt that Hopkins completes step 1 and 2 of the catch. There’s clear possession and there are clearly two feet down. Now is the tricky part: Did Hopkins become a runner? Hopkins jumps for the ball, comes down with his left foot first, then his right foot. There’s your two feet. Then he gets his left foot down again, and before Hopkins is able to do anything else, Bademosi pokes the ball out. Here’s another angle:
Basically this call comes down to whether you think that third step constitutes becoming a runner. The rulebook is unclear where it says a receiver must be capable of “taking additional steps.” Is that one extra step what the rulebook is talking about? With such passive language, it’s hard to know, which is exactly why I complained about the “changes” to the rule back in August.
Here’s how I see the play: DeAndre Hopkins makes the catch and is attempting to make a “football move” by stopping and trying to head in the other direction. Before he completes this move, the ball is punched out. I don’t think that third step matters, because he is still incapable of completing his move and he does not tuck the ball away. His “extra step” looks more like landing from his jump. Again, the language isn’t clear enough in the rulebook to say if that matters or not, but by my understanding of the rule, that means he did not complete the “becoming a runner” portion of the rulebook and the call would have remained incomplete upon review.
At the very least, this play looks inconclusive to me. Obviously that means the play would have stood and the Lions would have lost a challenge and a timeout. All that being said, FOX showed just one replay before the Texans got the next snap off. I find it very hard to believe the Lions coaches got all of the pertinent information from that one replay to definitively conclude they shouldn’t challenge the play. Even if in retrospect, they probably would have lost, at the time, it was definitely worth a shot.