New England Patriots

Jesse James of the Pittsburgh Steelers dives for the end zone for an apparent touchdown against the New England Patriots on Dec. 17, 2017. After official review, it was ruled an incomplete pass. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Bill Belichick explained in his Tuesday conference call with reporters why the Pittsburgh Steelers’ overturned touchdown against Jesse James likely wouldn’t happen to the Patriots.

You know the play by now: James caught a pass from Ben Roethlisberger, clearly gaining control of the football before crossing the plane of the goal line. But the tight end lost control when he reached over the line with the ball and crashed to the turf. Because he didn’t “survive the ground,” per NFL rules, the officials ruled the pass incomplete and overturned the TD.

The play has become the most talked-about in the NFL in the wake of the Patriots’ 27-24 win in Pittsburgh. Descriptions have ranged from the correct interpretation of a flawed rule to a straight-up screwjob. But regardless of how Belichick and the Patriots feel about the rule itself, they are aware of it. And that’s why they likely wouldn’t have such a play reversed against them.

“We talk about everything that’s football related, so situations, ball security, all of those things. We go over all of the situations,” Belichick told reporters on Tuesday. “There are a lot of different ones. They’re not quite all the same, but we cover them and make sure that they understand what we would want them to do in different situations. As I said, there are many different things that could happen on the types of plays that you’re describing.”

NFL Philosophy

As for the particular situation that led to James’ overturned TD, that’s a play that you rarely see the Patriots make. The coaching staff teaches players to prevent the league’s convoluted catch rules from taking touchdowns away in a similar fashion to James’ non-catch. It’s why you almost never see a Patriots player reach the ball over the goal line, instead tucking it underneath and trying to push their way in to the end zone. Barring a last-play-of-the-game situation, the worst-case scenario for them is that the runner is down at the 1-yard line with another chance to punch it in.

Belichick agrees with the NFL’s preference to distinguish between catches and incomplete passes rather than completed catches and fumbles.

“There’s always been a philosophy in the league and it’s gone back several decades of philosophically whether you want to have a catch and a fumble or an incomplete pass, and the philosophy has always been incomplete pass. Otherwise, you’d have a million catches and fumbles. I agree with that,” said Belichick. “The catch in the end zone is very clearly stated, so you’ve got to complete a catch. It’s pretty clear.

“Whether there’s a better way to do that, I don’t know. It’s a tough rule. It’s a bang-bang play. It could go either way. So I think you have to have a philosophy and whatever philosophy you have then there will be people on the other side with a different philosophy and then it really gets back into that whole discussion. I think if you’ve got a better way to do it, suggest it and let somebody take a look at it and we’ll talk about it. I don’t know.”

It Is What It Is

Former Patriots exec Mike Lombardi took it a step further. He recently suggested on The Ringer’s “GM Street” podcast that if a Patriots player ever tried to reach with the ball over the goal line, he’d be benched. But clearly, that’s not entirely accurate:

Still, none of those plays involved players in the process of catching the ball. And in general, the goal line lunge is not a move you see particularly often from the Patriots. That’s because their coaches and players are as knowledgeable with the rulebook as any team in the league. You may not like how catches are officiated as far as “surviving the ground” after crossing the goal line. But the rule is what it is – and Bill Belichick knows it.

And that’s why you probably won’t see them victimized by it.

— By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com


Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff.