MINNEAPOLIS -- A hush dropped over the crowd. All eyes went toward the big screens at U.S. Bank Stadium. Had Zach Ertz just caught the game-clinching touchdown in Super Bowl LII? Or were the Philadelphia Eagles -- and the entire NFL -- heading to Catch Rule Hell?
Referee Gene Steratore headed to the sideline for the inevitable review.
One minute passed.
Ertz started to get nervous.
"If they overturn that," Ertz said as he recalled what he was thinking in the moment, "then I don't even know what a catch is."
Of course, the twin hiccups of the NFL's 2017 season -- replay review and the catch rule -- intersected in one shining moment Sunday night. Ertz would either be credited with an 11-yard touchdown reception with 2:21 remaining, or the play would be ruled incomplete. Because it would've been fourth down, the Eagles likely would've faced a field goal attempt.
But that shouldn't have been necessary, should it? The ruling seemed clear. Ertz had caught the ball and taken at least two steps before lunging over the goal line. The ball popped out when he hit the ground, but anyone with common sense -- and a good understanding of the NFL rulebook -- would have considered it a catch. The two steps meant Ertz had possession and thus wasn't required to control the ball throughout the process of going to the ground.
But as time passed, it was fair to wonder: Was Al Riveron, the NFL senior vice president of officiating, considering the kind of highly technical reversal that characterized his first season in the job?
"I didn't even think there was anything to review," Ertz said. "I knew that you kind of had to after every touchdown, but I didn't know there was a reason behind it, that it was going to be that close, that they had to go over and spend what seemed like an eternity over there."
After that eternity ended, Steratore announced the obvious: Ertz had established possession and scored a touchdown. The Eagles regained the lead and held on for a 41-33 victory over the New England Patriots.
"You are always holding your breath on those," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "You never know. When it happened, bang-bang, I didn't even think anything about it. Then they took a little bit of time. Then you're just praying."
That the review caused genuine suspense, on the league's biggest stage, is precisely why commissioner Roger Goodell wants to rip up the catch rule and sharpen the focus of replay this offseason. Riveron and vice president of replay Russell Yurk have waffled enough on their interpretation of the reversal standard that we were all left to wonder whether a clear touchdown would be reversed in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
"The city of Philadelphia would have been hot if they had overturned that," Ertz said. "Luckily for our city, they didn't."
Viewed on the whole, the Super Bowl suggested that Riveron and Yurk have already taken notice of Goodell's initiative. In addition to sticking to the Ertz call, they declined to overturn a 22-yard touchdown reception by Eagles running back Corey Clement in the third quarter.
A frame-by-frame view showed that the ball moved slightly after Clement gained control in the end zone. After the ball stopped moving, Clement got only one foot in bounds before he stepped out of the back of the end zone.
In Week 16 of the regular season, Riveron and Yurk overturned a touchdown by Buffalo Bills receiver Kelvin Benjamin in a similar situation. But on Sunday, they allowed the play to stick. It was the right call, by the way, and a further admission that the Benjamin reversal was probably a mistake. Replay is not designed to scour for the tiniest of movements after a catch. It is supposed to identify clear and obvious mistakes. This was not one.
Here are a few other thoughts on Sunday night's officiating:
There was plenty of social media discussion about the Eagles' alignment prior to quarterback Nick Foles' 1-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. Were the Eagles in an illegal formation?
NFL rules require seven players to be on the line of scrimmage. As former NFL linebacker Matt Chatham noted on Twitter, Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffrey did not appear to be fully on the line at the top of the formation. Without Jeffrey, the Eagles would have had only six players on the line:
The fourth down trick play TS to Nick Foles was an illegal formation, should have been called back...extended WR to the top of the screen is off the ball (needs to be on the line with just the OT on inside him). #SB52 #Eagles #Patriots pic.twitter.com/tdX7hIpiGu
— Matt Chatham (@chatham58) February 5, 2018
I agree with the folks at Football Zebras, among others, who made this counterpoint: Jeffrey might have been slightly off the line, but it was close enough to go uncalled. You would find similar alignments more often than you might realize if you go through NFL film, and there could be many multiples of illegal formations called in every game if officials wanted to call it that tightly on a routine basis.
The Patriots were flagged only once on a false start penalty against tight end Rob Gronkowski. That brought their 2017 postseason total to eight penalties, including those that were declined or offset, over three games. For those who think that constitutes favoritism, I pose this question: What else should the Patriots have been called for in the context of how the Super Bowl was being called? I didn't see much, if anything, from a glaring standpoint.
There was only one sack, and there were zero holding penalties. That's an unusual combination. You would think there would be one or the other, but not both.