How many times did you have to watch Jesse James lunge into the end zone before you realized the play might be ruled an incompletion? In live action, nothing seemed amiss. After one full-speed replay, it still looked like a touchdown. In slower motion, well, maybe he bobbled it. Rewind. Squint. Yeah, he might have lost control there. Once more, zoomed in and slowed down: Wait, it slipped out of his hands for that one instant. Rewind again. Another look. OK, admit it: It’s not a catch.

James initially scored what appeared to be the winning touchdown in the biggest game of the NFL regular season. After officials reviewed it for several minutes, they determined James actually lost control of the ball – had not “survived the ground,” in the vernacular – as he dived into the end zone with less than a minute left. And so, a 30-27 Pittsburgh Steelers lead turned, after a fateful, shocking interception moments later from Ben Roethlisberger, into a 27-24 New England victory.

The play and the reversal instantly prompted discussion about and scorn toward the NFL’s byzantine and counter-intuitive catch rule. Yes, the rule is broken, a total confusion of a simple act. But the catch rule is not the primary issue. It is outgrowth of the NFL’s biggest problem in drawing a line between a completion and incompletion. The NFL has a replay problem.

The argument for replay review is unassailable in theory. If the technology exists to make sure every call is correct, why not use it? In practice, we have an answer to that rhetorical question. In order to get every call “right,” the tax is having to litigate microscopic movements and margins previously undetectable and uncared for. The cost of getting calls “right” is deciding games on rulings completely detached from the objectives of the sport.

The case against replay is not an actionable argument – the cat is out of the bag, stealing a car and driving across the country. Whether or not to use replay reviews in sports, especially football, is a discussion that has been settled. But continued consideration of its merits is warranted, because replay – even more so than the catch rule – is what confused and sullied the end of the game Sunday evening. Replay is what makes the insufferable catch rule possible, even essential.

Two offseasons ago, the NFL attempted to clarify what constitutes a catch. The simplified explanation required 158 words. We all agree that seems stupid. But slow-motion, magnified replays force the league to cover scenarios such as a player falling to the ground and momentarily losing his full grasp of the ball, even as he corralled it and controlled it long enough to dive into the end zone.

The language of the catch rule enabled officials to reverse James’ touchdown. But replay necessitated the language and forced officials to inspect the play at a level that is virtually irrelevant to the intended parameters of the game.

Replay, in all sports, has tested skills that the games do not intend to test. In baseball, does it serve anyone that the ability to not come off a base for 1/100th of a second after a slide is now a marketable skill? In football, do we want to judge a pass catcher’s talent by his capacity for not letting the ball rustle against a couple blades after he dives forward with it in his grasp?

If that’s what we want, celebrate replay. If not, leagues and fans need to constantly evaluate its role. Who was served by the reversal of James’ catch? Every drunk at a bar would have called it a catch after a couple real-speed viewings. Games are more enjoyable, and in some cases truer toward a sport’s aims, when that standard is applied.

The point of rules in any sport is to govern and decide which skills are most important. They establish the objectives of the game.

Replay has the power to reverse embarrassing and blatantly unfair decisions. But in doing so, it also rearranges and bastardizes those objectives.

Nobody knows what a catch is anymore. It’s not because the rule is too complicated, or because we don’t know enough. It’s because we see too much.

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