By Mike Dorf
With Hurricane Sandy wreaking its havoc on the coast and currently headed for Ithaca (perhaps as a mere tropical storm), I thought I'd devote today's post to the relatively frivolous distraction of a dissection of a football rule. For those of you who still have internet access, perhaps this will prove amusing.
Near the end of Sunday's Cowboys/Giants football game, Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant caught what was initially ruled a game-winning touchdown pass in the back of the end zone, but following instant replay review, the pass was ruled an incompletion. As the announcers explained, and as I shall explain momentarily, the revised ruling was correct.
The replay showed that Bryant caught the ball while he was in the air but that the first part of his body to land was his hand, and his hand landed partially beyond the back of the end zone. Under Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, if a receiving player "touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands" and controls the ball before going out of bounds (or out of the end zone, which is treated the same way as the sideline), the pass is complete. Accordingly, by negative implication and longstanding understanding, a player who partially lands out of bounds is deemed out of bounds. Thus, while landing on one's hands in the end zone or otherwise inbounds does not render a pass complete, landing first on a hand out of bounds renders the pass incomplete.
I'll admit that before the dramatic finish to Sunday's game, I was unfamiliar with the exact requirements of the rule. I was aware that in pro football, a player needed to get both feet down before going out of bounds--if he lands on his feet--but I hadn't really thought about what happens if a different "part of his body" made contact with the ground first. And this raises a question that, so far as I can tell, the rules do not fully address: What counts as a "part" of the body?
To make the question concrete, suppose the following slight variation on Bryant's catch. Suppose that Bryant's hand had not touched outside of the end zone but that he had landed on his left buttock inbounds but that he then rolled so that his left buttock made contact with the area out of the end zone. Is that a completed catch because Bryant's left buttock is a "part of his body" that touched the ground inbounds? Or is the relevant body part Bryant's entire posterior, so that he should be ruled out of bounds?
According to the post-game commentary I heard, any part of Bryant's hand landing out of bounds made him count as out of bounds and so one might think that the same is true for other body parts, but that still leaves us with the quandary of what counts as a body part. Moreover, hands are different, because by express exception within the rule, no part of the hand landing inbounds can render the player inbounds. Thus, it is tempting to say that if any part or sub-part of a player--other than his hands or feet, which are subject to their own rules--makes contact with the inbounds ground before any other part of the player lands out of bounds, then the player is inbounds and the catch is a completion. Under this reading of the rule, officials would not have to decide whether a buttock is a body part or merely half of a body part. If the reciever has control of the ball when his left buttock--or even some portion of his left buttock--hits the ground inbounds, then the pass is complete, even if fractions of a second later some other part or subpart of the player goes out of bounds.
Likewise, suppose an eligible receiver loses his helmet but then catches a ball in mid-air, landing on his face. (Ouch!) If his nose hits down inbounds but then his cheek lands out of bounds, is the relevant part of the body his nose (completion) or his face (incompletion)? My reading of this rule makes this esoteric question unnecessary to answer.
But is a preference for interpretive certainty one of the canons of construction of the NFL rules? I would hope so, but frankly I don't know. I do think that this one little puzzle illustrates the incredible complexity that rules of sport can manifest. For those of you interested in discovering more puzzles, the complete NFL rulebook can be found here. It belies any idea that football players are "dumb jocks." Just learning the letter of the rules, much less mastering the complex offensive and defensive plays and schemes used in the NFL, is an extraordinary challenge.