At first glance, it was the rare type of play that could make almost 80,000 people collectively gasp, then hush.
A despondent silence overcame Lambeau Field late Sunday afternoon. Green Bay Packers players, coaches, fans all had the same reaction. Cornerback Sam Shields' coverage was perfect. The Packers' top cover corner blanketed Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant down the visiting sideline. Step for step, the two were interlocked late in the fourth quarter when Bryant leaped over Shields to make a dazzling, crushing catch.
That's what Shields initially thought it was. A catch.
"At first," Shields said, "he made a great play and (I) said, 'Good on good.' He's a great receiver, too. He got up, made a good play, and at the end it came up bobbling."
The bobble gave Green Bay a second chance. Shields said cornerback Casey Hayward was first to see it on Lambeau Field's big screen. Soon, his teammates saw it too.
Packers defenders turned toward the sideline, waved their arms to signal incomplete, shouted for Packers coach Mike McCarthy to challenge the catch.
"It was everybody," Shields said. "Everybody was just yelling, 'Throw the flag. Throw the flag.' Coach did the right thing."
Cornerback Sam Shields and other Packers players talk about the Cowboys' fourth-down pass to Dez Bryant that was ruled an incompletion by replay officials. (Jan. 11, 2015)
Replay review overturned the call. Instead of first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the fourth-down incompletion gave Green Bay possession. Dallas never got it back.
The Packers ran out the clock with a 4-minute, 6-second drive that sealed a 26-21 win against the Cowboys in the NFC divisional playoff round. Green Bay will quickly move past Sunday, focused on their upcoming NFC Championship Game matchup in Seattle, its first trip to the conference title game since the 2010 Super Bowl run.
Dallas was left to dwell on Bryant's catch that wasn't, and the call that ended their season.
In the locker room, Bryant staggered in disbelief. There are always two sides of a debate. Bryant said he took two or three steps, completed the catch with a football move while stretching to the goal line, and should have kept possession.
That's not how referee Gene Steratore or the league office saw the replay.
"Although the receiver is possessing the football, he must maintain possession of that football throughout the entire process of the catch," Steratore told a designated pool reporter after the game. "In our judgment, he maintained possession but continued to fall and never had another act common to the game. We deemed that by our judgment to be the full process of the catch, and at the time he lands and the ball hits the ground, it comes loose as it hits the ground, which would make that incomplete; although he re-possesses it, it does contact the ground when he reaches so the repossession is irrelevant because it was ruled an incomplete pass when we had the ball hit the ground."
There's a lot to digest in Steratore's statement. In short, officials ruled Bryant did not complete an "act common to the game" – the proverbial "football move" – by taking three steps and reaching out to the goal line. Rather, they determined, every action was part of the process of falling to the field, meaning the possession was not yet completed.
Bryant clearly disagreed.
"I've never seen that a day in my life," he said. "I'm just trying to wait and see. I want to know why it wasn't a catch?"
"All I know is I had possession, and I had possession of the ball coming down. That's possession, right? One, two (feet), reach, hand, that's possession. That's possession. … You see my hand? I tried to stretch forward. I wasn't off balance. I was trying to stretch for it, and get in the end zone."
During the replay, did Bryant think there was a chance his catch would be overturned?
"Not even a thought," he said. "Not even a thought. I knew we were in a position to have an opportunity to take the lead. That's all I knew."
Did Bryant blame the officials for taking away the catch?
"Come on, man," Bryant said. "I'm just saying I think it was a catch. I feel, if anything, it was a catch and they took it away. So obviously it's because of them."
Naturally, Bryant wasn't the only one in Dallas' locker room upset about the ruling.
Quarterback Tony Romo lamented how the calls "don't go your way sometimes." Coach Jason Garrett said Romo made "a great throw," Bryant made "a great catch," and pointed to how the initial ruling was a completed pass.
"It looked to me like he had three feet down," Garrett said. "What they described to me was that it was a move not common to the game. Dez reached out for the goal line, which he has done so many times. It is a signature play for him. He maintained possession of it throughout, in my opinion."
Then there was Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
The often outspoken face of the franchise said he was "shocked and disappointed" his team didn't have a chance to line up for a potential go-ahead touchdown. He called his players and their effort valiant, courageous.
Jones stopped short of saying officials "stole" the game from Dallas, but he thought Bryant made the catch.
"We had the opportunity to look at several (camera) angles up there where we were sitting from the replay, and the answer is I do," Jones said. "We've had a lot of, certainly we had the call last week in our game with Detroit (a negated pass interference). We had the ruling on (Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong) Suh before that. So we've had a lot of re-looks at things around the league, and sometimes they go for you and sometimes they don't."
The Packers watched a lot of camera angles, too. The video screens flanking both end zones at Lambeau Field showed replays of Bryant's bobble throughout the review. Players watched from field level.
Green Bay receiver Jordy Nelson said he was hoping the officials would make the "right" call. Every receiver, he said, knows possession must be retained through the catch. Fellow Packers receiver Randall Cobb agreed.
As did cornerback Tramon Williams, who said his initial thought when he saw the replay of Bryant's bobbled pass was "the Calvin Johnson rule."
"You go back and watch the Calvin Johnson plays," Williams said, "and you come back and tell me what you come up with. I've seen Calvin make that catch about three times. Go to the ground, the ball comes out, and they say it's incomplete, and you're like, 'Oh, wow.' Same exact thing. Same exact thing. Referees made the right call in my book.
"I thought it was clear. I thought it was clearer than some of the other penalties that they called."
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