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It was as plain as the nose on your face.
Mike Alstott didn't get into the end zone. And, because of that, the Redskins lost.
Please note that there is no assertion here that only that one play caused the Redskins to lose. There were many plays that put the Redskins in a position to lose. Offensively, there were the three turnovers and the inability to convert a second and four into a first and ten on the possession just prior to Tampa Bay's last scoring drive. Defensively, there was the 9.6 yards per pass play that they gave up to an inexperienced quarterback playing with no running game and only one legitimate threat at receiver.
Still, despite all of these sins of commission and omission over 59 minutes and two seconds of play, the Redskins were one play away from hanging on for a win. They had to stop Alstott from gaining one yard. They did that but for some reason the head linesman didn't see it that way and he signaled the point as good. The referee then reviewed the replay and inexplicably upheld it. Here is a still of one of the shots available to him as he reviewed the play.
That's Alstott's right elbow in the circle and the white line in front of it is the goal line. Although you can't see the ball in this shot, if you look at the video you can see the ball in his right arm both before and after this particular frozen moment. Here's a larger view of it to give you a little more context.
The reason that this moment is frozen if because at that instant Alstott was down and the play was over. An elbow equals a knee. That elbow, by the laws of anatomy and physics, was closer to the goal line that the football was. The ball, not a body part attached to the ball, has to cross the plane of the goal line before the ball carrier is down.
This was not a case like the one we saw last week when Mike Sellers waved the ball out over the goal line and the replay judgment had to be made with a two-dimensional picture when three dimensions were needed to make a truly accurate assessment. Here, two dimensions are plenty. The elbow is on the ground. The play is dead. Alstott, of course, keeps fighting and eventually, after he was down, got the ball over the plane of the goal. That's when the head linesman, Derick Bowers, who had the best angle on the play, ran in, thought about it for a second or two, and then raised his arms to signal the two-point conversion.
As referee Bill Vinovich reviewed the play, the Fox commentators discussed the replay angle from which these stills were taken.
Joe Buck: "We look at the right elbow of Alstott, and it looks like it's down there (short of the goal line). The question is, where's the football?"
Troy Aikman: "The ball's in his right hand. His elbow is short of the goal line when it hits the ground. The ball cannot be further ahead than his elbow is. So, to me, the ball's not in. If his elbow was down before it crossed the goal line, and it just can't happen that the ball is in front of the elbow, then the ball didn't cross the plane (of the goal line)."
Certainly, nobody has ever accused Troy Aikman of being a Redskins homer.
Confronted with this indisputable visual evidence—the standard required to overturn a call on replay—Vinovich ignored it. What are you looking for the on replay in a situation like that, when a player's back is to the ground? If you're a competent official you're looking at the elbows, nothing else. If you see an elbow hit the ground before the ball breaks the plan, you reverse the call. Why he didn't, we'll never know.
We do know that it cost the Redskins the game. The other controversial replay call that the Redskins had go against them earlier this year, the reversal of a safety call in Denver, happened in the third quarter. The referee blew that one, too, but it didn't clearly cost the Redskins the game. We don't know how the additional two points for the Redskins would have affected the dynamic of the game.
Here, there were 58 seconds left. All the Redskins would have had to do to win the game is recover an attempted Tampa Bay onside kick, something that the receiving team does some 90% of the time in the NFL. The impact of the two points that gave—that word was chosen carefully—the lead to the Bucs in the last minute of the game was very, very clear.
Again, this was one of many reasons that the Redskins lost the game. All of the others were things that were under their control, but they just couldn't execute. In this case, they did execute, they did stop the runner short of the goal line. And they were robbed.