By now, we've all read the specific rule that explains Dez Bryant's catch/no-catch during yesterday's game and why, according to the letter of the rule, it makes sense that the pass was ruled incomplete. By now, we all also know that that rule - like many of the NFL's - makes no damn sense. In a lot ways, the NFL thrives on this perpetual gray area of rule interpretation. Like the old days of the BCS, the debate that stems from whether a hit was illegal or not, or a catch was in bounds or not, or a flag that was inexplicably picked up, is often very much worth the short-lived backlash from whatever team and fan base feels like they got screwed. It's for this reason I, as a Packers fan, feel bad for Dez Bryant.
Because make no mistake, Dez Bryant got screwed. The NFL's rules say otherwise, but these are the same rules that say you're supposed to hit the opposing player, just not too hard. Or in specific areas of the body. Or for too long. These are the same rules that use vague, subjective terms like ‘process' and ‘throughout.' These are the same rules that, in some cases, are predicated on ‘intent', as if that's some kind of measurable value. These rules are dumb and while some have helped the game - outlawing leading with the helmet, for example - they've by and large made watching football a lot like watching last night's Golden Globes. It's just that instead of an IMDB app open the whole time, you need a rulebook handy to know just what the hell is going on. Sooner or later, on-field referee explanations will just advise the audience to turn to page 43 of their NFL manual.
This is the opposite of how football should be. Like all sports, football is at its best when great players are allowed to do great things. When the mundane - like a simple pass or a catch - is turned into the majestic. Like Aaron Rodgers teleporting about the pocket and delivering a dart to Davante Adams in the corner of the end zone. Or in yesterday's case, Dez Bryant doing everything short of climbing up the Lambeau Field luxury boxes to make what would have been a game-shifting catch. These are the plays that as a football fan, you hope to see. Especially from someone like Dez.
Here's a guy who, ever since coming into the league has been subjected to a constant flow of molten-hot takes on how he needs to "play the game the right way" and gesticulate less on the sideline, and keep his head straight and every other lame excuse the Brian Billicks of the world have made for criticizing Dez for essentially being a black Tony Romo. Here he was, doing everything you can ask of your athletes. He hustled his ass off, ran a perfect route, timed his jump beautifully, and exerted every last bit of will from his finely tuned frame to catch the ball, stay in bounds, and reach for the goal line in the hopes of scoring. We talk all the time about which team ‘deserved' to win the game; while I usually think that's BS since teams, for the most part, get what they earn, this is one case where Dez Bryant earned that damn catch.
Now, I don't know what Dez Bryant would be doing if he didn't play football, but I do know this: Dez Bryant was built to play football better than most people are built to do anything else. And here he was, doing something great in the exact moment his team needed him to be great. Yet, throughout those mesmerizing slow-motion seconds of him extending that ridiculous wingspan to haul in that catch, you just knew. Knew that because the ball moved by a bit, this wasn't going to be a play that gives this game - already a great one by any standard - additional subtext like ‘The Drive' or ‘The Catch.' Instead of seeing a player write his own chapter to the NFL's history books, we got something far less captivating - the NFL's rulebook.
And just like that, the game was all but over (per our Paul Noonan on Twitter, Advanced Football Analytics' WP Calculator says the Cowboys were 45% likely to win if the catch was upheld, but 13% after the overturn). All because a singularly magnificent athletic play was reduced to the living embodiment of legislation. Something tells me the Packers - with Aaron Rodgers breathing fire at that point - would have gotten the points to win even if Dallas scored and took the lead. Unfortunately, that's not what we got, which makes yesterday's game not only unfair to Dez Bryant.
It was unfair to us.