Walt Anderson on Hunter Henry’s touchdown reversal: the ball hit the ground and the player lost control


With the score tied at 23 on Thursday night, the Patriots had the ball at the Minnesota Six. It was third and goal.

Tight end Hunter Henry caught the ball near the goal line and reached across before it hit the ground. He lost possession and then completed the catch in the field of play.

The official near the play ruled it a touchdown. The question on replay review became whether Henry retained possession after hitting the ground. NFL senior VP of acting Walt Anderson, who handles all replay review questions, ruled that the ball hit the ground when Henry landed, making it an incomplete pass.

After the game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters, “Why don’t you guys go up to them with your pool reporter and ask them about the play?” Isn’t that what you do?

Indeed. And indeed they did.

Here’s how Anderson explained the decision to pool reporter Mike Reiss of ESPN.com: “He went down, the ball eventually hit the ground, and then he lost control of the ball in his hands.”

Why was it not determined that Henry had possession before the ball hit the ground?

“Because when he goes to ground, he has to maintain control of the ball when he hits the ground,” Anderson said. “The term that is often used is ‘survival on the ground’. Many people refer to that. So when he goes to ground he has the elements of two feet and control, but because he goes to ground he has to maintain control of the ball when he goes to ground.”

As Reiss pointed out to Anderson, Henry had two hands on the ball.

“Well, if he had maintained control of the ball with two hands even if the ball hit the ground, if you didn’t lose control of the ball after it hit the ground, that would still be a catch.”

The decision raises an interesting question about the application of the “clear and obvious” standard. The on-field ruling was a catch for a touchdown. For replay review, here’s the right question: Was the on-field ruling plainly and blatantly wrong?

There are two separate components to the “plain and obvious” standard in this case. Indeed, it was obvious and obvious that Henry lost possession when he landed and secured possession again just short of the end zone. That would have given New England the ball on the 1-inch line, fourth and goal.

But was it clear and obvious that the ball hit the ground and moved enough to not make a catch at all?

Remember that reversals should only happen when it is clear and obvious. Fifty drunks in a bar would have to agree, as it is often described.

In this case, it seems clear that it was not a touchdown. But it doesn’t seem clear and obvious that it wasn’t a catch; Henry’s hand was always under the ball. So New England arguably should have had the ball just outside Minnesota’s end zone, fourth and goal.

While it’s possible the Patriots would have opted for the field goal and the 26-23 lead, the Patriots may have opted to try and smash it in for a touchdown. Had the trial been true to the “50 drunks in a bar” standard, the Patriots should have had that option.

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