Bitter End on the Frozen Tundra
GREEN BAY – I am walking down a cinder-block corridor inside Lambeau Field alongside Dez Bryant, who is still in uniform but for his stocking feet. And the Dallas Cowboys receiver is politely, solemnly, mechanically retracing in slow-motion his on-field steps as he counts them down.
“Catch,” he says as we progress down the corridor, recalling his leap at the 5-yard line of a deep Tony Romo lob on fourth-and-2.
“Then one (step),’’ he says.
“Two,’’ he adds with another stride. Then another. “Three.’’
Then Dez reaches out his left arm near the cinder-block wall and cradles an imaginary football.
“And reach,’’ he says, re-enacting the actions the Cowboys believe should’ve propelled them to the NFC Championship Game in Seattle next week and one more corridor away from the Super Bowl.
It was the play of a lifetime, a fitting bookend to “The Ice Bowl,’’ Green Bay’s controversial playoff win over the Cowboys in 1967, the hub of a wheel featuring so many spokes that would change so many things.
And then the officials said it wasn’t a catch at all, allowing the Packers to escape with a 26-21 victory.
Referee Gene Steratore watched as Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy tossed his challenge flag and then oddity was set into motion. McCarthy hadn’t won a challenge all year. Steratore was the ref in 2010 who was involved in “The Calvin Johnson Rule,’’ noted in Article 3 in the NFL Rulebook: “If a receiver loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.”
But did it ever touch the ground? Didn’t Dez have control as his knee and cradled elbow touched down inches from the goalline? The NFL (which aided the ref with the ruling from a Big Brother perch in New York) mentioned the lack of a “football move’’ but wasn’t Bryant’s step, step, step and stretch actually a trio of football moves?
“It looked to me like he had three feet down,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Dez reached out for the goal line, which he has done so many times. It’s a signature play for him. He maintained possession of it throughout, in my opinion.”
Steratore’s multi-pronged counter? He said he saw “a couple of angles that show the ball actually hitting the ground and then the receiver losing possession of it as well.” He said the officials determined that Bryant “never had another act common to the game” after making the initial catch.
“I had possession of the ball coming down and then I ran with the ball,” Bryant told me. “That’s possession, right? One, two, three, reach. That’s a catch. That’s a catch.
“That’s a catch.’’
That play, which just happened to occur not far from where Bart Starr scored on that historic quarterback sneak against the Cowboys 47 years ago, was one of many that could’ve served as a tipping point here for a Dallas team that – with 12 regular-season wins and a controversial playoff victory over Detroit last week – won twice as many games as most predicted.
Romo was heroic. DeMarco Murray (who did commit a costly turnover) combined with the O-line as a force. Dallas’ defense held likely MVP Aaron Rodgers’ attack to 26 points. But…there were lots of tipping points.
“Let me make it really clear,’’ Garrett said. “This game wasn’t about the officiating. We had 60 minutes. We had an opportunity to come up here and win a football game, and at the end of the day we didn’t get that job done. That play was big in the game, but there were other plays in the game and unfortunately we didn’t do the things necessary to win the ballgame.”
Dez Bryant isn’t quite willing to concede that just yet; he thinks he did exactly what was necessary to win the game. Before he left the locker room, he told me he hadn’t even bothered to check out replays of what will forever be an infamous play.
“Nope,’’ he said, suggesting to me he didn’t need to see a video to know what happened because he’d just lived it. “Y’all seen what I seen.”