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New V.P. of officiating doesn’t want the Calvin Johnson rule to change

On Sunday, Lions receiver Calvin Johnson caught what many thought would be a touchdown, a game-winning touchdown. A half-of-last-year’s-total-victory-count game-winning touchdown.

On Monday night, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen explained that new NFL V.P. of officiating Carl Johnson doesn’t want the applicable rule to change. Johnson also explained to Mortensen that the two-point conversion from Saints receiver Lance Moore late in Super Bowl XLIV, in which Moore lost possession when he hit the ground but before that had lunged the ball across the goal line, remained a good call because Moore committed a “second act” while falling to the ground.

But the rule book acknowledges no such exception.

Mort characterized the rule -- and the uncodified “second act” exception -- as having no gray area. And we can’t disagree more strongly with Mort on this point. It’s all gray; there’s no black and there’s no white, especially since (as we detailed in the Week One Monday 10-pack) the 2009 season involved many similar situations from which confusion and uncertainty arose and lingered.

So the rule must change, even if the change comes not to the rule that made Johnson’s catch not a catch. At a minimum, the “second act” exception needs to be articulated and acknowledged in the official rule book, so that all officials will know about and factor the “second act” exception into their assessment of every catch or non-catch.

In Johnson’s case, a reasonable person could argue that the affirmative act of putting the ball in one hand and pushing it toward the ground constitutes a second act. Indeed, if Moore’s desperate lunge across the plane of the goal line became a “second act” that allowed him to lose possession upon striking the ground, then Johnson’s decision (misguided as it may have been) to use the ball to assist his quick rise from the ground so that he could properly celebrate his game-winning score arguably was a “second act,” too.

Let’s look at it this way. If Johnson’s catch had occurred at the one, and if while swinging his arm to the ground he would have broken the plane of the goal line, the proper call under the “second act” exception would have been touchdown.

And that’s the heart of the problem. In an effort to take some of the perceived and/or actual unfairness out of a rule that takes away a catch that viscerally looks like a catch, the league has crafted an exception that isn’t in the rule book, and that therefore doesn’t -- and can’t -- be applied with any consistency.

So if the league wants to keep the rule, that’s fine. But the league needs to reduce the “second act” exception to writing, and the league needs to educate its part-time officials regarding the manner in which the exception should apply.

The events of 2009 should have been more than enough to make that happen. If it had, the Lions very likely could be 1-0 right now.

That said, it’s also incumbent on the teams to know the current rules and to coach their players accordingly. Johnson never should have literally touched the ball down -- he should have tucked it away and rolled, and then he could have gotten up and celebrated what inevitably would have been ruled a touchdown.