Ten years after he presided over the most famous touchdown-that-wasn’t in NFL history, retired referee Gene Steratore has an admission to make.
“I saw the play in live speed and the first reaction would be what the reaction I think would be for almost everyone — and that was: ‘That’s a touchdown,’” Steratore told the Free Press last month. “Again, just viewing it as a spectator in real-time. And then the process of replay starts.”
Nearly a decade to the day that Calvin Johnson’s almost game-winning catch against the Chicago Bears was upheld as an incomplete pass, the play remains a seminal moment for a Detroit Lions franchise that’s no stranger to heartbreak.
Historically, most of the Lions’ mortal wounds have been self-inflicted. Eddie Murray missed a 44-yard field goal in the playoffs. Kevin Scott let Sterling Sharpe run free to the back of the end. Marty Mornhinweg took the wind in overtime. Jim Schwartz threw a challenge flag on Thanksgiving. Jim Caldwell played for that “pass back-and-forth kind of thing” instead of a Hail Mary.
Johnson’s catch was different. First ruled a touchdown, then an incomplete pass on the field, it embodied the Detroit vs. Everybody movement it helped create.
“That was my first game there, my first experience, really, in a Lions uniform,” quarterback Shaun Hill said. “And there was just this feeling like — and very verbalized — that we always get screwed. Like, ‘Typical. Everybody’s against us.’ And that’s kind of a mantra for the city.”
Johnson said this summer that the NFL still owes him a touchdown for that play (and two others it ruled against him as well).
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Steratore, now an analyst with CBS, said he still hears occasionally from upset Lions fans about the call, which the NFL confirmed as correct later that day.
Even former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, now the head coach at Illinois, half admits his team got away with one that day at Soldier Field.
“Ooh, it’s kind of obvious,” Smith said this summer. “Nowadays, I’m not in the NFL anymore, I think they’ve changed the rules a little bit. Back then it wasn’t a catch. I think even Jim Schwartz said that after the game. Back then it wasn’t a catch. Now, probably it would be.”
Now, definitely it would be.
The NFL admitted as much in 2018, when it simplified the catch rule to include just three elements — control of the ball, two feet or another body part down in-bounds, and a football act, or the ability to make one — and mentioned Johnson’s would-be catch prominently as a reason why.
“The question was asked, ‘Do you want the Calvin Johnson play, do you want that to be a catch?’” NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent said in 2018. “And then we began working back that way.”
‘Yeah, it was baffling’
Immediately when the play happened, it caused an uproar, on the field, on social media and across the league.
On Sept. 12, 2010, in the opener in Chicago, the Lions were coming off a 2-14 season at the time and looking for their first road win in nearly three years. Starting quarterback Matthew Stafford was knocked out in the first half with a shoulder injury that would eventually end his season, and Hill was trying to lead a comeback after the Bears scored 16 unanswered points to take a 19-14 lead.
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The Lions started their final possession at their own 17-yard line, with one timeout and 1:27 on the clock.
Hill threw complete to Bryant Johnson for 24 yards on the opening play of the drive, then picked up 8 more with a short pass to Jahvid Best. On second-and-2, he threw complete over the middle to Tony Scheffler for a first down. Timeout, then a 16-yard pass to Calvin Johnson and a quick spike to stop the clock.
The Lions had 31 seconds to go 25 yards, and on second-and-10, with the Bears eschewing their normal Cover 2 defense to send two extra blitzers after Hill, they thought they got the whole chunk.
“It was four verticals,” then-Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan recalled. “We called that Apollo. Our four verticals out of three-by-one was Moon and our four verticals out of it was Apollo, I remember. I remember we slid the protection, so it was either Trap Pass Apollo or it was Jet Right Apollo, but that’s what it was. He was at Z and we got single coverage, which was great. And Shaun didn’t miss it, put it in a great spot. Threw a perfect pass. Hey, it is what it is.”
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Hill, who signed with the Lions as a free agent that offseason, said he doesn’t recall a single pass he threw to Johnson before replacing Stafford in the second half of that game. Stafford was in his second NFL season at the time, and the Lions wanted him and Johnson to work on their chemistry all training camp.
Still, seeing Johnson one-on-one with cornerback Zack Bowman, Hill knew he had to take his shot.
“I kind of got hit a little bit by (Brian) Urlacher and I just remember the stadium just going silent and then watching the video,” Hill said. “I mean, the whole time I was like, ‘That’s a catch. It’s over.’ On the scoreboard, watching the replay, I’m like, ‘What’s everybody worried about right now?’ Yeah, it was baffling. Baffling to me. Looks like a catch, smells like a catch but it’s not a catch. And Calvin had such control of the ball that he’s basically just showing it. That’s why he’s got it in one hand, he’s just showing it like, ‘Look.’ Gosh.”
Johnson leaped high in the front right corner of the end zone over Bowman and secured the ball with both hands.
His twisting body hit the ground, right foot first, then left, and as he fell to the grass he extended his left arm to brace his fall. As Johnson landed on his butt, his extended right arm, ball in hand, slammed to the turf and the ball came loose.
Side judge Mike Weatherford raised his arms to signal touchdown and Johnson sprang to his feet in celebration and sprinted wildly behind the end zone to the Lions bench, unaware that back judge Dino Paganelli had ruled the play incomplete.
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“When I saw the play, I knew Shaun Hill was going to put it up to me,” Johnson said. “It was single-high. Whether it was man or Cover 3, it was single-high. I had the corner on me, he was within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. I had a go route on the outside, so I knew the ball was coming. I know Shaun, it’s not going to be a laser cause we’re like 20-some yards out probably, maybe 30 yards out. So I know it’s going to be some air up there so I know if I just get myself in position I’m going to have a chance to go up and get the ball.
“It played out exactly as planned. Caught the ball, feet, butt. When my butt hit the ground, that was the most force actually going down to the ground and I had the ball extended in one hand at the time, and then I started to push myself up, turned over, and as I was getting up, I left the ball right there on the ground. It’s not like the ball was moving, either. The ball stayed right where I put it. … I put it down, I came up and the ball stayed there and I ran off celebrating. Yeah, that was highway robbery right there.”
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‘We stole one’
As the crew chief that day, Steratore did what he was taught and let the two officials with the best view of the play figure out the call on the field. Weatherford and Paganelli huddled and called the pass incomplete, and replay official Paul Weidner buzzed down to signal a review.
Because his eyes were trained on the backfield, Steratore did not see the play live. The first time he saw it, he said, was under the hood for replay, when Weidner played it back in real speed.
“Really to give you the most transparent answer I could give you is, I kind of did recall looking at that real quick and go, ‘Well, that’s a touchdown,’ and having a very good, qualified replay official say, ‘We’re going to run this back now in slow motion, now let’s discuss the definition of the process of the catch,’” Steratore said. “And that in itself, in all honesty, is probably still a conversation.”
Because the old catch rule required a player to complete “the process of the catch,” maintaining control of the ball after he hits the ground, essentially, Steratore, with the help of Weidner, upheld the ruling on the field.
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He said no one from the league office was in his ear during the review, unlike what happens today, and though the league later affirmed the call, he knew the firestorm the call had created before he boarded his flight home at O’Hare Airport later that day.
“You knew based on reactions of players, of the feel of the stadium, of what type of player’s involved,” Steratore said. “Calvin Johnson was not the type of player that would show a lot of confrontation with officials or something like that. He wasn’t cut from that mold. He didn’t really complain, to my recollection, at all to me directly even on the field there, but you could feel that in the stadium.
“It’s opening day in the NFL, the Lions are in Chicago. It’s a divisional rivalry of high magnitude. … We’re not in a vacuum. You know that there’s going to be some controversy to some decisions in certain games because of the magnitude of that play.”
In his 15 years as an NFL official, Steratore was involved in his share of controversial plays.
Along with that Lions-Bears game, he officiated the Dallas Cowboys-Green Bay Packers division playoff game in 2015, when Dez Bryant’s leaping fourth-quarter catch was overturned on replay, and Super Bowl LII between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, when Corey Clement’s second-half touchdown catch was upheld despite questions about whether he had possession of the ball.
Both Johnson and Bryant were, in some ways, victims of their own talent, Steratore said.
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“By their own physical prowess and their elite physical abilities, they are a second ahead of the rest of the world about where they are with the play, and ahead of the definition,” he said. “I think Calvin Johnson, as soon as he possessed it realized he was starting to turn sideways and the back of the end zone may be in play so he had already turned his head to figure out how he was going to stay in-bounds and still finish this. That’s what makes them yellow jacket people. So I think is what I came to appreciate my whole career and to this day, and also understand just how amazing they are, they are that far ahead. They finish catches and they’re into runs before their body landed.”
Johnson’s catch, even more than Bryant’s, “took the (definition of a) catch right to its last step,” Steratore said. And that’s why, 10 years later, it’s still the toughest call he has had to make.
“It wasn’t like Dez’s catch,” Steratore said. “I felt like he was just falling from the moment that he had it and the ball clearly popped out of his possession as it hit the ground there, from again my opinion, in Green Bay. Where Calvin’s was a hand with control. He was falling for a couple of steps, he turns and looks at the ground as he’s going to fall, and I can still see that even as I sit in my car and do this interview as if I were there. And it was that definition from a replay official, slowly walking through that play, and looking at that last sequence of that play, (that made it incomplete).”
That’s no solace, of course, to any of the Lions involved in the play.
Linehan, who was Bryant’s offensive coordinator in Dallas in 2015, said Johnson’s would-be touchdown still gnaws at him.
“It was a catch and it was a touchdown and everybody that was at that game or watched it on TV knows it, so that’s all I’ve got to say,” he said.
Former Lions receiver Nate Burleson said the call “change(d) the season” and was a big factor in the team’s 6-10 finish that year.
Johnson said no one from the NFL ever has ever personally acknowledged he caught the ball that day, though even legendary Bears cornerback Charles Tillman, who was in coverage on the opposite side of the field, said it was plain to see.
“It probably was” a catch, Tillman said. “I think all of our hearts sank like, ‘Oh no, crap. He caught it. Oh, he didn’t catch it? Thank you, referees.’ We stole one.”
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