By Jason Keidel
It figures that one of the great robberies in NFL history was perpetrated against someone named Jesse James.
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost a football game to the New England Patriots. At least on paper. On the field, it was another matter.
If you haven’t been in a coma over the last 18 hours, the Steelers hosted the Patriots, in what many considered the game of the day, of the month, if not of the season. And for about 55 minutes, the Steelers were handling their two-decade tormentors, on the brink of finally turning the tables on Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and that NFL monolith from Foxborough.
Until they didn’t. The Steelers got robbed, and the Pats got by with a little help from their striped friends, who never run the ball, tackle a ballcarrier, or throw a ball, but helped throw a game.
Any objections from Steelers fans can be dismissed as sour grapes. And yes, yours truly was born black and gold, wrapped in a Terrible Towel, weaned on Mean Joe Greene. But we all saw it the same way. The world west of Boston knows what happened.
Tom Brady did what Tom Brady does — lead a last-minute drive into the opponent’s end zone, with poise and precision, playing a high-end game of catch with Rob Gronkowski. So when they scored with 55 seconds left, it seemed the Steelers were once again doomed by the only club they can’t seem to conquer.
But then Ben Roethlisberger tossed a ball to a crossing JuJu Smith-Schuster, who somehow dodged tacklers, tiptoed the left sideline, and galloped for 69 yards, down to the Patriots’ 10-yard line. On the next play, Big Ben hit tight end Jesse James for the game-winning TD. Until he didn’t.
James caught the ball, tucked it into his gut, landed on his left knee, while reaching the ball across the goal line, without being touched. (And it’s vital to remember that the refs called the play a touchdown the second it happened.) Thousands of Terrible Towels were in full spin cycle, the crowd in full-throated glory. But then there was an increasingly uneasy pause before the extra point.
Jim Nantz and Tony Romo, calling the game for CBS, couldn’t understand the delay, as each recycled replay clearly showed the young man crossed the goal line. And then, like a light flicked on, Nantz and Romo got what was going on. The ref in charge, head buried in some camera or tablet, had to chat with the bosses on Park Avenue. At that point football fans had to know something drastic was about to happen. Refs never wait to deliver good news.
Sure, Roethlisberger screwed up after that, with a silly fake spike and a pass that never should have been thrown, and was tipped into arms of a most gleeful Patriot. But this idea that all things were the same as before the overturned score is nonsense. The Steelers went from a miraculous TD drive, jumping out 31-27 (provided Chris Boswell makes the extra point) with 29 seconds left, to no TD drive, still down three points, and their hearts hanging from their rib cages.
Even if Big Ben spikes that ball, or makes the smart throw out of the end zone, they still have to hit the FG. And even if they hit the FG, they were only assured an overtime session. (Provided Brady doesn’t use those 29 seconds to kick another FG before overtime.) Considering the universal deflation the Steelers surely felt, the OT would have been a Patriots formality. The Pats are predatory enough without help from the refs.
And if you listened to the folks from the NFL, the ones who represent the referees, you were more confused today than you were last night. They talk about James making a catch, yet later in the analysis it was not a catch. They talk about James “surviving the ground” after he catches the ball. If you’ve been playing or watching football for 30 or 40 years, have you ever heard or used the term “surviving the ground” in any context?
The NFL brass is trying to moonwalk from the call while asserting its accuracy. And to those “letter of the law” freaks who say they did the right thing by reversing the call, then please explain why the rule works, or why a clear catch 20 years ago is not a catch today. Calvin Johnson caught that ball. Dez Bryant caught that ball. Sterling Shepard once caught a TD pass, took three steps in the end zone, then tumbled ten yards later, and somehow lost control of the ball, and the score.
Now we’re lost in a litany of definitions and contradictions. Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart recently leaped over the offensive line, flashed the ball past the goal line, then had it slapped away by a defender. Yet it was a score because once the ball passes the goal line, play is officially dead. Unless you’re Jesse James, or the Pittsburgh Steelers, or anyone but the New England Patriots.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.