Anybody who was a Seahawks fan in 2012 remembers the Fail Mary, a desperation heave from the 24-yard line by Russell Wilson as time ran out against the Green Bay Packers. Golden Tate put a hand on the ball, so did Packers safety M.D. Jennings, and as they fell to the turf together, one of the replacement refs (who could forget that sorry era?) signaled a touchdown, while the other signaled an interception. Overnight, thousands of irate football fans became contract lawyers, fine-slicing the rule book and shouting at each other about “simultaneous possession” and “joint control.”
Those who watched San Francisco 49ers defensive back Jaquiski Tartt wrest the ball from DK Metcalf’s iron grip at the finish line of Seattle’s first offensive scoring drive (we thought) might have reached for their rulebooks, too. I know I did.
The first question aspiring Seahawks litigators likely asked was whether a defender who has two feet out of bounds is entitled to lay his greasy mitts on the ball. It turns out that the answer, shockingly, is yes. As long as the ball carrier was in bounds, Tartt was within his rights to be out of bounds when he began the process of creating a fumble. There is absolutely no rule in the rulebook that says otherwise. Since Tartt was back in bounds (two feet touching down) before he took possession of the ball, the pigskin and the glory that went with it was all his.
But! What we learned from the Fail Mary, a catchy if incorrect name for the Seattle touchdown against Green Bay, is that joint control occurs when two players are technically in possession of the ball at the same time (feet down, hand or hands on the ball). We also learned, good thing for Golden Tate, that you only need one hand on the ball for possession, and that there’s no such thing as “superior possession.” A player with two hands on the ball doesn't have a better claim than a player with one hand on the ball. It’s jointly controlled, and the question of who gets to keep it is decided by who possessed it first.
Looking at the tape above, which is mostly what the broadcast showed, the answer is clearly Metcalf: He has possession first, and you can see him keep one of his 10-inch bear paws firmly attached to the football all the way to the ground. So it should be Seahawks’ ball, right? Here’s the reason it isn’t, shown on Monday Night Football only once:
You see that green glove open and close? That’s Metcalf, momentarily losing his grip on the football. Since Tartt has hands on it at that point, possession goes (i) Metcalf only, (ii) joint control with Tartt, (iii) Tartt only, and (iv) back to joint control.
Since Metcalf surrendered total control to Tartt for half a heartbeat and only fought his way back to joint control, possession was awarded to Tartt and the 49ers.
And then the Seahawks won the game, rendering this series of events fascinating instead of agonizing.