In the span of a few minutes during Sunday's game in New Orleans, the Bears experienced the full spectrum of football emotions. First came excitement, awe and happiness, followed by great concern and panic. Then came confusion, and finally anger, all for a play that took eight seconds and wound up accounting for no yards.
The Saints wound up winning the game, 20-12, but who knows how the contest would have played out had a third-down play midway through the third quarter been ruled differently. On the play, rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky made perhaps the best throw of his young career, tight end Zach Miller made a terrific catch and suffered a gruesome injury, and the officials made a decision that changed the entire trajectory of the final score.
At the time, the Saints led 14-3, but the Bears were on the move. Chicago had the ball at the New Orleans 25-yard line, facing third-and-10, when Trubisky dropped back to throw. The rookie signal-caller stood in the pocket and immediately shifted his eyes to the right, where Miller was running a post-corner route. Miller had single coverage, and had beaten Saints defensive back Rafael Bush. Trubisky threw a perfect ball, dropping it into a bucket as Miller cut into the end zone. The tight end leaped and hauled the pass in with his left hand and cradled it into his chest, as Bears players began to celebrate, thinking they'd cut into the deficit to make it a one-score game.
But as Miller came down with the ball, his legs became tangled with Bush's. Miller was unable to plant his feet properly, and his left knee snapped backwards as he returned to the turf. Bush rolled over the tight end, but it appeared at first glance that the ball stayed tucked in to Miller's chest.
As Chicago's trainers rushed out to look at Miller, referee Carl Cheffers announced that the touchdown was under review, as all scoring plays are. NFL officials in New York found that upon closer inspection, Miller had let go of the ball after he had gotten both feet down on the turf and rolled around, with his backside and elbow both touching the ground. The tight end had placed the ball down in order to hold his knee, a natural reaction from anybody writhing in pain.
Miller came down with clear possession and got two feet in bounds, as well as several other body parts. But according to Cheffers, he did not "complete the process of the catch," a rule made infamous by former Lions receiver Calvin Johnson in a 2010 game against the Bears at Soldier Field. Cheffers announced that the play was overturned and that the pass would be ruled incomplete, because Miller had put the ball on the ground and failed to complete the catch's process. Instead of kicking a point-after-touchdown, Connor Barth came out and kicked a 44-yard field goal to make the score 14-6.
"I just put a spot where Zach could make a play on it, and he made a heck of a catch," Trubisky said. "It was a great effort on his part. The call was what it was, but it was an awesome play and effort. It was a big play in the game."
"We'd rather have had a touchdown than a field goal," John Fox said following the game, after the coach announced that Miller suffered a dislocated knee on the play and was taken to a hospital for further examinations. "(Zach) is a fantastic person, a great teammate, he's well-loved in our locker room. You never like to see that happen to anyone, especially Zach."
Following the game Cheffers clarified the call to a pool reporter, saying that the rule states a receiver must "survive the ground." Because Miller temporarily lost possession after he fell to the turf and didn't complete the process, the pass was ruled incomplete.
Miller had emerged as Chicago's top option in the passing game. He came into the Week 8 contest against the Saints with 33 targets, the most among Chicago tight ends and receivers, and was the only player on the team with receiving yards in each of the first seven games in 2017. He'd also emerged as a locker room leader, developing a strong bond with Trubisky and the other young players on the team.
The fact that he'd become that type of player is a testament to Miller's talent and perseverance. He played quarterback at the University of Nebraska-Omaha before converting to tight end. In 2009, he was a sixth-round pick of the Jaguars and was emerging as a strong option for Jacksonville prior to a brutal stretch of injuries derailed him. After playing in four games for Jacksonville in 2011, Achilles, shoulder, calf and foot injuries sidelined him for nearly four full seasons, as his next snap after that was with the Bears in 2015. He played 15 games that year and 10 last season, and then the injury bug bit again, with a foot fracture ending his 2016 campaign in mid-November.
This season was looking like it would be one of Miller's best years, before the brutal injury that took place on the Superdome turf. And to add insult to injury, he doesn't even get the stats for the touchdown.
The Bears tried to recover from the overturned call, and had a chance to tie late in the game but fell short. The point difference between the touchdown and field goal were important, as was the mood of the team after Miller exited. After overcoming that wide range of emotions, the team's focus turned to their injured teammate who now must overcome another major health challenge.
Left guard Kyle Long, who also left Sunday's contest with an injury, called Miller "tougher than nails." He and the tight end had surgery on the same day last year, and he's seen first-hand how the tight end responds from setbacks.
"I thought (Miller) made a hell of a catch," Long said. "We'll move forward. He's done a great job imparting some wisdom on is tight ends here. Zach's irreplaceable."