Matt Ryan's Fumble and the Missed Call that Cost the Atlanta Falcons the Super Bowl

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By Bobby Fausett

There is one play from Super Bowl LI that jump started the Patriots.  There is one play that has widely been credited as the one play that allowed the Patriots to make their historical comeback.  There is one play that changed history.

While Julian Edelman’s catch was spectacular, Dont’a Hightower’s sack fumble was legendary…or was it?

According to the 2016 NFL Rulebook, a forward pass is defined as

[a ball that] initially moves forward (to a point nearer the opponent’s goal line) after leaving the passer’s hand(s)…[and]… first strikes the ground, a player, an official, or anything else at a point that is nearer the opponent’s goal line than the point at which the ball leaves the passer’s hand(s).

The rulebook further clarifies

When a player is in control of the ball and is attempting to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his hand starts a forward pass.

This means any forward movement of the hand that results in the ball moving initially forward is considered a forward pass.  If we watch the replay from the NFL’s twitter feed below, Dont’a Hightower reaches Matt Ryan after Ryan’s arm is clearly moving forward, but does the hand move forward?  For this question, we need to turn to physics, specifically, Newton’s First Law.  Simply stated, an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion with a constant speed and direction, unless the object is acted upon by an unbalanced force.

In watching the replay, the ball clearly moves forward and hits an offensive lineman at “a point nearer [to] the opponent’s goal line” (approximately two yards downfield). Taking the definition as set forth by the NFL, this is automatically a forward pass. However, when taking into consideration the clarification, and using common sense, if the defense hits the quarterback from behind, the ball could be jarred loose and yet fall forward and would not be considered a forward pass.  This was not how the play worked out in the Super Bowl however.

In fact, Dont’a Hightower comes from the side and hits Ryan’s throwing arm from the front which would propel the arm and the ball backwards towards the quarterback’s left.  If you watch the clip, the ball instead goes forward and to the right.  Go ahead, try it yourself.  If you hold a football (or any object) in your hand and lightly bludgeon your forearm with your opposite hand first as you hold your arm steady, next while moving your arm forward and finally again moving your arm backward, you will get the same three results every time.

The first scenario the ball will drop straight down where your arm once was.  The second scenario, where your arm comes forward, the ball continues forward as your arm is stopped and you will see your hand flick down towards your wrist (much like Matt Ryan’s hand does in the GIF below).  Finally, in the third experiment with your arm going backwards, the ball dislodges from your hand but continues backwards and often gets caught up on your hand and arm as it attempts to fall to the floor.  Based on Newton’s First Law, all of these scenarios are just as we would have expected.

The question then, is how could Matt Ryan’s hand have not been moving forward when the ball clearly flew forward and hit his offensive lineman two yards away?  Due to the angle with which Hightower hit Ryan’s arm, the only explanation is that Ryan’s arm and hand were moving forward at the time of impact.  If you watch the GIF below, you will clearly see both Ryan’s arm and hand move forward propelling the ball forward.

Matt Ryan gif

Matt Ryan Incomplete Pass Or Fumble?

Now, you may ask, how could this have possibly been missed on the biggest stage with supposedly the top referees in the game?  In real time, the answer is simple, without review, this looked like a clear fumble.  What boggles my mind, and should boggle the minds of anyone who calls themselves a football or any sports fan, is why was the game not stopped and this play reviewed?  This should have been done automatically based on the play resulting in a turnover.  And, if any snap judgement was to be made by the replay official, it should have been that the ball moved forward after the quarterback was hit from the front, therefore it was an incomplete pass.

A play with under two minutes left in regulation saw the Patriots’ Trey Flowers intercept the ball but clearly land with his entire foot completely out of bounds, and the game was still stopped while the replay official looked over the play; how was the same courtesy not extended to the most crucial turnover in Super Bowl history?  Some may say the game is rigged, others may say they just missed it.  No matter the reason, the Atlanta Falcons had the game stolen from them with one play, and no one appears to have noticed.