WR Michael Clayton established possession of the football and then made a football move to get into the end zone with the winning touchdown
NFL referees don't give press conferences after games, but they are made available to explain certain calls if they are of special interest to the media. The interview in such a case is conducted by a single reporter and then shared with the rest of the media.
The result is called a "pool report." That was rather fitting following Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals, because if the main call in question had gone against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, more than a few hometown fans would have gone off the deep end.
Maybe a player or coach, too.
The Buccaneers scored the decisive points in a 14-13 victory on an eight-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Michael Clayton with 35 seconds to play on a fourth-and-three. Clayton ran a quick slant from the slot, caught a hard pass from Gradkowski and then turned and lunged over the goal line. As he landed in the end zone, the ball bounced out of his hands, but the Bucs weren't immediately concerned because Clayton had obviously broken the plane of the end zone.
They were concerned moments later, of course, when the officials began waving their arms in the dreaded "incomplete pass" manner. Their interpretation on the field was that Clayton had been falling when he made the reception and – shades of Edell Shepherd against Washington – he therefore had to maintain control when he hit the ground, no matter where that occurred.
The replay booth called for a review of the play, however, and repeated showings of the chain of events on the stadium videoboards further convinced the Bucs on the field and the hometown fans in the stand that the play should be ruled a touchdown. After looking at the videotape, referee Mike Carey agreed.
Here is his explanation, from the aforementioned pool report:
"The ruling on the field was, in the process of making the catch, the receiver was going to the ground, and when he hit the ground the ball came loose. However, there's a provision that within that process the receiver had two feet down and did a football move, a la extending the ball, which he did in this case, broke the plane, the ball's dead at that spot before it hits the ground, so it's a touchdown."
In other words, Clayton did not go down as he made the catch. Rather, he caught the ball, got two feet down and then dived. That made him, in essence, a ballcarrier rather than a receiver in the act of making the catch as he crossed the goal line. And, since he was a ballcarrier with established possession of the ball, the play is dead and ruled a touchdown the instant he gets it over the goal line.
In case you harbored any doubts, Clayton agreed with the final decision. The few minutes spent waiting for Carey to emerge from the replay hood weren't particularly comfortable for him, however.
Clayton obviously remembered that the same call had been made on Shepherd's attempted catch at the end of last January's Wild Card playoff game with the Washington Redskins…in the exact same end zone, in fact. That play, too, had been reviewed but it didn't go in the Bucs' favor. Whether or not that call was correct, it didn't go over well with the Buccaneers, and it left Clayton wondering if he was in for another kind of instant replay on Sunday.
"I know I caught the ball," said Clayton. "I know I stretched out across the goal line. I didn't have any doubt. Some calls like that have been a little fishy. So I was a little scared. Not really a big fan of it…until today."
Carey was also asked about the roughing-the-passer penalty called against Cincinnati defensive end Justin Smith during Tampa Bay's game-winning drive. Smith got to Gradkowski on a first-and-10 play starting at the Bengals' 32, dropping the Buccaneer quarterback at the Bengals' 40. The Bengal rusher did get credit for the sack, but he was also penalized 15 yards from that spot for the manner in which he finished the play.
Carey explained that play actually fell under the umbrella of "unnecessary roughness" since Gradkowski didn't get the pass off.
"The ruling on the field was roughing the passer," said Carey. "Technically, it was unnecessary roughness because the pass didn't get away. But in the tackle, the defender, stopped forward progress, drove him backwards, and then at the end gave him the extra effort and stuffed his head into the ground. We're directed to protect the safety of the quarterback. Most people don't understand [unnecessary roughness], so we just called it roughing the passer."
That call was definitely not popular on the Cincinnati sideline.
"I guess you have to cuddle him to the ground," said Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis.