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The NFL’s Catch Rule: A History of Confusion, Heartbreak, and Uproar

The NFL’s Catch Rule: A History of Confusion, Heartbreak, and Uproar

What’s A Catch?

For nearly a decade, few elements of football have befuddled NFL fans as much as the league’s mercurial catch rule. Amidst subjective diction such as “surviving the ground,” “football move,” “becoming a runner,” and “perform any act common to the game,” it has become easier and easier to find oneself lost. Unfortunately for both the league and its supporters the 2017 – 2018 NFL season seemed to heighten spectator confusion tenfold, causing the NFL’s Competition Committee to re-work the catch rule earlier this offseason. The changes made, though, are reportedly superficial, and some believe the new language is as subjective as ever. While it remains to be seen just how effective the refined rule will be, the league has, for now, bandaged the issue. For most fanbases an entertaining saga, and for others a painful calamity, the catch rule controversy’s impact on recent NFL history has been profound, perhaps second only to the league’s social justice protests and emerging CTE research. Below, enjoy (as best you can, Cowboys fans) a history of the catch rule’s most memorable chapters and a review of the Competition Committee’s tweaks heading into the 2018 season.

The Beginning: Calvin Johnson

Late in the fourth quarter of a Week 1 thriller against the Chicago Bears in the 2010 NFL season, Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson made what seemed to all in Soldier Field a game-winning touchdown grab. Leaping high over Bears cornerback Zack Bowman, Johnson appeared to secure the ball with both hands. Turning counterclockwise as he fell to the ground, Johnson allowed his left hand to release the ball, now holding it out from his body with just his right hand. Johnson lands both feet on the ground, still controlling the ball in his right hand, before landing (in bounds) on his left knee, left hand, and butt. Seconds later, his right hand (still possessing the ball) contacts the ground. Immediately upon contact, the ball pops free and rolls out of the end zone. Certain he’d just won the game, Johnson ran through the end zone, embracing teammates en route to the Lions’ sideline. After a brief caucus, the officials broke ranks, declaring that, contrary to their immediate ruling, their on-field call is an incomplete pass, incoherently asserting: “the runner did not complete the catch during the process of the catch. It is an incomplete pass.” In 2010, the NFL rulebook stipulated that, “If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body other than his hands to the ground, or if there is any doubt that the acts were simultaneous, it is not a catch.” Although the rule seems to have been enforced correctly, fans struggled to accept that while Johnson controlled the ball for two full seconds, and had, by all common sense, caught the ball, the pass was, by the letter of the law, incomplete.

Dez Caught It

With just under five minutes remaining in a Divisional Round contest against the Green Bay Packers, America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys, faced a fourth and two. Under duress, from the Packers’ 33-yard line, quarterback Tony Romo lofted a jump ball to star wide receiver Dez Bryant. Soaring over the top of Packers defensive back Sam Shields, Bryant gains control of the ball with both hands. Squaring himself to the end zone as he descends, Bryant takes three steps on his way to the ground. Before contacting the turf, Bryant braces himself using his right hand and forearm. Cradling the ball in his left hand, Bryant appears to reach for the goal-line. The receiver’s left forearm slams into the ground just one foot from the end zone, causing the ball to pop loose. The ball does not, though, entirely leave Bryant’s possession. As he rolls onto his back, #88 attempts to reposition the ball, rolling it off of his shoulder, into the air, and then allowing it to drop back into both hands. Called a catch on the field, the play was overturned after a Green Bay challenge. Head referee Gene Steratore announced that “After review, it has been determined that the receiver did not maintain possession of the football.” A disgusted Dez Bryant bemoaned, “I took three steps, I tried to reach over the goal-line. How’s that not a catch? I tried to reach over the goal-line.” Then VP of Officiating Dean Blandino tweeted out later that night: “Bryant going to the ground. By rule he must hold onto [the ball] throughout entire process of contacting the ground. He didn’t so it is incomplete.” 2014 NFL rules provided that “A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. Forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is in balance: a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and b) touches the ground in bounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and c) maintains control of the ball long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.).” Whether Bryant did indeed “perform any act common to the game” by appearing to extend his left arm towards the end zone is the subject of continued debate. I, though, am here to tell you that whether or not Bryant made “a football move,” as the clause has come to be called, the play should have been ruled a completion. Watch the play. Conduct your own eye test. Employ some common sense. In your heart of hearts, you know exactly what I know: Dez caught it.

So, Where do we Stand?

Earlier this offseason, (late in March) the NFL Competition Committee, by unanimous vote, approved changes to the catch rule, aimed largely at simplifying the moderately complex language of the rule’s predecessor. As of now, a catch can be defined as either a) control of the ball, b) two feet (or another body part) down in bounds, or c) (and this is where there remains room for subjectivity) a football move. According to the revised rule, football moves include a third step, intentional extension of the ball (a la Dez Bryant reach with his left forearm). The hope is that the established modifications would allow both Dez Bryant’s (2014) and Jesse James’s (2017) plays to be ruled completions. Only time will tell if the NFL’s shiny new rule will alleviate or exacerbate fanbase confusion and controversy.

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