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The anatomical case that Michael Dyer *wasn’t* down

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The internet has long debated whether parts of the Auburn hero touched the ground. They didn’t, according to body part experts.

For the first 58 minutes of 2010’s BCS Championship, the Auburn Tigers were in their own way. Cam Newton threw a pick near midfield. A 16-play drive stalled with a fourth-and-goal incompletion. Auburn was fortunate to be up 19-11 with five minutes left, but then Newton fumbled at his own 40.

The ball went back to Newton with a tie score and 2:19 to play. For a rare change, the Auburn offense — led by maybe the most dominant college QB ever — needed a break.

The break they got was a big one:

On the second play, Newton handed to freshman Michael Dyer on a zone read. Dyer appeared to get tackled after a six-yard gain.

Umpire Bryan Neale, standing right there, didn’t blow the play dead. A group of Oregon defenders stood around, as did Dyer for nearly a second. Dyer realized the situation and ran for another 31 yards, allowing Auburn to kill clock before a chip shot field goal to win the title, 22-19.

At two points in the play, Dyer looks like he might be down.

The NCAA rulebook says a player is down “when any part of the ball carrier’s body, except his hand or foot, touches the ground.” So the Dyer play presents two questions.

  1. Was his right leg or ankle down?
  2. Was his right wrist or forearm down?

If either answer is yes, Dyer’s 37-yard run should’ve been a six-yard run, rather than a championship-breaking play and eternal college football internet meme.

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Oregon fans, Auburn fans, and amateur refs have spent years offering all manner of take on which parts of Dyer contacted the turf in that fateful second.

One side says there’s no definitive proof. The other says the play was obviously done. There are years and years of tweets with the exact phrase “Michael Dyer was down.” It’s become a rallying cry for many, especially aggrieved Ducks and those looking to troll Auburn fans.

We can add these authorities to those who say Dyer wasn’t down: two leading doctors who specialize in the relevant parts of the human body.

Matt Matava is the sports medicine chief at Washington University in St. Louis, where he’s an orthopedic surgeon and teaches physical therapy. He’s a team physician for the Stanley Cup champion Blues and worked with St. Louis’ departed Rams. He works closely with foot, ankle, tibia, and leg issues.

Carrie Swigart is an associate professor of orthopedics and rehab at Yale Medical School. Hand, wrist, and arm issues are among her many specialities.

I asked both to review the play and broadcast replays. They reached the same conclusion: Dyer wasn’t down, as no part of his body other than his hands or feet contacted the ground. So for the rest of this post, if you feel like arguing Dyer was down, you’ll be disagreeing with professional experts on the exact body parts in question, not with me.

(Thanks also to Mark Ellen, a Johns Hopkins sports medicine specialist who didn’t review the play but helped me understand some foot and lower leg business.)

Let’s talk first about Dyer’s leg, which was extremely close but can’t conclusively be considered down, according to the expert.

“I watched this clip a bunch of times since I arranged this interview with you, and I watched the whole thing,” Matava said. “I never saw him [be] what you would decide as being down. Between his forearm, elbow, knee, shin: nothing that would put him down and [cause] the play [to be] stopped that I see happened in this sequence.”

Dyer’s shin gets close, but it’s hard to say it definitely touches. Here’s the best screen grab ...

... and a reverse angle:

For Dyer’s shin to have touched the ground, he would have needed an unusually wide range of motion in his ankle, per Matava. Most of Dyer’s body is on top of an Oregon player. And his foot is on the ground. That means his ankle plantar flexion (the range of motion that deals with your toes moving away from your nose) would have to be extreme for his shinbone to be touching, no matter how close it looks, Matava said.

“His tibia never goes beyond being [parallel] to the ground,” he said. “It’s only a few inches above the ground when it’s about to touch.”

I later emailed the doctor an AP photograph of the play that prompted Business Insider, the next day, to declare, “Here’s The Photo That Proves Auburn’s Michael Dyer Was Down.” Once you clicked, the article acknowledged the photo did not actually prove anything.

The photo raised a question about Dyer’s ankle, which isn’t part of the foot and would render Dyer down if it touched the grass. Did the image change Matava’s view?

“No,” he wrote back. “There’s no definitive proof his ankle is actually on the ground (rather than hovering over it). Plus, if anything, it looks like the side of his foot would be the contact point rather than his lower leg. Not enough proof to change my mind.”

Dyer’s ankle is inverted, rotating inward. That makes it likelier the ankle is not touching the ground. Meanwhile, his heel (part of the foot) might be.
Photo: Associated Press.

His ankle rotates inward, away from the ground and toward Dyer’s body, which is called inversion. This left-to-right range of motion might have helped keep Dyer’s ankle off the ground along with his tibia.

“Theoretically, increased inversion would allow his leg to remain off the ground despite the force to the ankle,” Matava said, referring to the force that comes from running and falling. “Therefore, inversion may have helped him stay upright.”

The ankle is extremely close, but it could be that Dyer’s heel is touching, rather than his ankle. Either way, it isn’t quite indisputable visual evidence.

The other question, meanwhile, has a simple answer: Dyer’s arm was not down.

“In my opinion, only his hand is down,” Yale’s Swigart said. “The wrist is really defined as the joint. And in this case, only his palm is touching the ground. The palm is considered part of the hand. The forearm is not touching the ground at all.”

For Dyer’s wrist or forearm to be down, something at the bending point or farther toward his fingertips would need to be touching the ground. Dyer is wearing a glove, and his hand and wrist are taped, but fortunately, we can tell which part of the body is which.

“There’s not a lot of variability about what’s your wrist, what’s your hand, what’s your forearm,” Swigart said. It’s a stretch to look at this and say, Rats, you just can’t tell which part of his arm is touching. The answer is right in front of us.

“We generally consider the hand to be the part that is beyond where your wrist bends,” she said. “So if you just take your own wrist and bend it back and forth, everything [toward the fingers] is really the hand, and everything proximal to that, or towards the elbow, is the forearm. And then that part that bends is your wrist.”

Swigart advised thinking of this the same way you’d think of a person doing a handstand.

“When doing that, only your hand is on the ground. If the rule would allow a player to be in the position of a hand stand and consider that not ‘down,’ then this is the same thing,” she said.

With no other arm part contacting the turf, the rules say Dyer’s hand is not down.

The notion that Dyer was down inspires all sorts of hypotheticals.

If he were ruled down ...

  • Would Auburn still have won? (Most likely, yeah. The Tigers were approaching midfield and had Newton and were moving the ball well all night. But it’s not definite, especially given the turnover woes.)
  • Would potential national champion Chip Kelly have left Oregon earlier? (I dunno.)
  • What would Newton’s legacy at Auburn have become? (Ditto, but I’d assume he’d have been remembered extremely fondly even in defeat.)
  • Would Auburn have fired Gene Chizik even earlier? (Perhaps.)
  • What would’ve happened for Dyer? (Would he still have wound up at Arkansas State, Arkansas Baptist College, and Louisville?)

They’re interesting things to ponder. The thing they have in common with Michael Dyer being down is that they’ll never be more than hypotheticals.