Injustice Rules the Day

Trey Miller, Matt Aiken, Ken Niumatalolo, Jabaree Tuani, an injured Kriss Proctor, and the rest of the Navy Midshipmen deserved a hard-fought win on Saturday against the East Carolina Pirates, a welcome break from the four-game losing streak that gave the 2011 season a decidedly bitter flavor. Instead, the college football rulebook (and the rules committee that revised it) stood in the way.


Yes, we could lament the performance of Navy's defense, which allowed East Carolina quarterback Dominique Davis to complete all 26 of his passes in the first half at Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland. Yes, we could note that coordinator Buddy Green's group allowed 504 yards without plucking a turnover from an ECU team that had coughed up the rock 23 times through the first seven weeks of the season. Yes, we could point out that kicker Jon Teague missed a 42-yard field goal to deny his team a chance at overtime (the kick wasn't even blocked this time…). Navy could have done things at various points to improve its chances of snapping the losing skid that has turned this season into a sour experience; there's no question that in competitive athletics, calls good and bad have to be played through – there's always the next snap. Moreover, one play – while holding perhaps undue influence over a game's outcome – looms large only because those "other things" weren't done in the game's other 59 minutes. A season filled with stomach punches is like that, and Navy has experienced almost every conceivable way to lose by a whisker.

Now, the Midshipmen – borrowing from Casey Stengel's old line about the 1962 New York Mets – are "showing me ways to lose I never knew existed." That's not a knock on the Mids, either. Full credit to East Carolina for piling up 38 points on the road and, in particular, solving its turnover problems – coach Ruffin McNeill has to be happy with the way his offense cleaned up its act. Nevertheless, the long and short of this game is that it was taken away from Navy – not illegally, mind you, but by the college football rulebook as it currently exists. The performance of the Mids will be dissected in the coming days, but after seeing the controversial way in which Navy lost on Saturday, it's definitely worth taking the time to deconstruct not just the sequence itself, but the points of emphasis in the college football rulebook that created this heartbreaker for the Men of Ken.

If there's one on-field rule that has to be changed in the sport of football at both the collegiate and professional levels, it isn't necessarily the "process-of-a-catch" provision governing legal pass receptions – that would be second on the list. No, the most important rule which needs to be amended in the sport of football is the rule governing legal possession of the ball in the end zone. Navy was burned by this deficiency in a rulebook that is rife with inconsistencies and unjust provisions. Niumatalolo and any other coach with a stake in gameday outcomes should make his voice heard to the rules committee, so that this weakness in the rulebook is fixed in time for 2012.

You might very well think that Matt Aiken scored a touchdown in the final minute of this East Carolina clash. Common sense certainly indicated as much. However, the rules of football don't always uphold the tenets of common sense and basic logic. This is never more the case than on plays involving possession (or lack thereof) in the end zone. To understand this, you need to go outside the realm of service-academy football and travel to Knoxville, Tennessee, in September of the year 2000.

On a sun-drenched afternoon in Neyland Stadium, the Tennessee Volunteers and Florida Gators did battle in a consequential SEC East encounter. With Tennessee leading, 23-20, in the final minute, Florida quarterback Jesse Palmer hit receiver Jabar Gaffney in the end zone with a pass that Gaffney clutched for perhaps half a second. Yes, Gaffney didn't hold the ball for a long time, but there was a half-second during which he fully controlled the ball with his feet touching the ground in bounds. Since Gaffney was in the end zone, there was nowhere for him to go, no forward progress to be gained. The end zone is called the END zone because it denotes… you know… the end of the field. When you possess the ball at the 5-yard line or the 45-yard line or the 1-yard line or the 31-yard line, the act of possessing the ball does not represent the completion of a play. The ball is still live. When you possess the ball in the opponent's end zone, however, you have completed your job simply by possessing the ball. There should be no need for a further act or demonstration of possession. Gaffney held that pass 11 years ago for only half a second before the ball was stripped by a Tennessee defender, but common sense suggested that he still beat his defender, made a catch, and scored a touchdown. Back then, the rules governing possession of a ball in the end zone were sensible.

Now, they're not, and Navy – particularly Mr. Aiken – paid the price on Saturday.

Ever since the Gaffney catch – which was thought to be somehow unsatisfying or "not fully earned" by a vocal contingent – the rules of football, college and pro, have been steadily modified to make possession in the end zone harder to legally attain. You've seen this in the NFL with Detroit Lion receiver Calvin Johnson's memorable "non-catch" in the end zone in the 2010 season opener against the Chicago Bears, but what you might have missed this past weekend – just hours before Matt Aiken was struck down by the rulebook – was that a Boise State receiver was similarly jobbed in BSU's game against Air Force. Understanding the way that play in Boise, Idaho, was adjudicated will enable you to realize why Aiken's play – which should have been a touchdown according to basic human logic – was not allowed by the college football rulebook.

In the Boise State-Air Force game, Boise's receiver caught a pass in the end zone and tapped down his left foot very quickly. According to year-2000 (Jabar Gaffney) end-zone possession rules, Boise State should have scored a touchdown. However, under current rules, the Broncos got shafted… again, not because of a bad call, but because the rules are absurdly written to deny legal possession of a ball by an offensive player in the end zone. The Air Force defender – after getting beaten IN THE END ZONE by the Boise receiver – was allowed to steal the ball from the receiver and come down with the ball after tumbling around in the end zone. A replay review awarded Air Force the ball on an interception, taking away – by rule, not by human error – a touchdown Boise State had earned. This same dynamic was in evidence in Aiken's touchdown that wasn't.

You, I and anyone else with a basic grasp of football principles saw Aiken break the plane of the goal line with the ball in his hands. According to basic logic, Aiken scored. He earned six points. Navy earned a game-winning touchdown by its efforts and maneuverings. Miller, filling in admirably for Proctor, should have been able to bask in the glow of a richly-deserved victory. However, the rulebook – which so sorely needs reforming – said otherwise. Precisely because legal possession of a ball in the end zone doesn't mean what it used to (or what it should), the rulebook doesn't recognize the breaking of the plane of the goal line as the end of the play. The rulebook demands that Aiken – and anyone in a similar position – finish the catch, with the important distinction being that "finishing a catch" doesn't mean what it used to. In the old days, finishing a catch simply meant, you know, CATCHING a ball and getting your foot down. Now, as we can so painfully and plainly see, it means so much more.

As a result, Navy lost a game it should have won… not because the officials messed up, but because the sport of college football has a horribly-written rulebook with woefully deficient points of emphasis. Hopefully, Niumatalolo and other coaches will ensure that end zone possession is re-legislated in the direction of common sense when 2012 rolls around.

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