The NFL is battling a multitude of off-the-field issues right now, but one big one on the field: What, exactly, is a catch?
In typical NFL fashion, the league has become so in love with its rulebook that the process of deciding what does or does not constitute a catch has become so muddied that two qualified sets of eyes can watch the exact same play and come to different conclusions. Or, in the extreme cases, everyone in the country can watch a catch and determine that, yes, it was a catch, but a referee and/or a replay official can decree that, no, the obvious catch you just watched was actually a drop.
Surely you remember the highlights of this debate by now.
For instance, the 2010 game when Calvin Johnson caught a would-be game-winning touchdown pass, touched both his feet to the ground, then fell to the ground and released the ball while rising to celebrate, and the play was ruled a drop.
Or this play from a 2015 playoff game, when Dez Bryant caught the ball, took three steps and got his elbow to the ground before the ball popped out in the process of Bryant going to the ground.
For what it’s worth, in both instances the plays were treated as catches by everyone involved — announcers, players, even officials — until more enlightened minds stepped in to educate the rest of the public.
Following a season in which two similar plays occurred in leverage points of major games, the NFL has promised to solve this issue once and for all this offseason, even going so far as to have players from past eras come in to the league offices to consult with current leadership on the issue. In an impressive step of transparency, NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron tweeted three plays that the league has pulled as case studies.
Before we give the answers below, watch and decide for yourself how the NFL ruled each play.
Over the past several days, the @NFL Competition Committee has been reviewing the process of a catch. The first two elements are control and two feet down. Additional elements are also under consideration. Here are a few of the plays we are looking at. pic.twitter.com/Ny3xs3vfst
— Al Riveron (@alriveron) March 19, 2018
In the first play, Cardinals running back Andre Ellington catches the ball, takes three full steps and then loses the ball as his forearm reaches the ground. The play was originally ruled as a catch and a fumble, then overturned upon review.
You surely remember the second play. Steelers tight end Jesse James catches a 10-yard pass, sticks his left knee in the ground, sticks his elbow in the ground, then loses the ball after it crossed the goal line. Once again, the play was ruled a catch on the field and overturned upon replay. Ben Roethlisberger would toss an interception two plays later, handing Pittsburgh a 27-24 loss and costing the Steelers the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
In the third and final play, Eagles running back Corey Clement catches the ball in the end zone, places two feet down, bobbles and re-clutches the ball, places another step that appears to be out of bounds and then is carried by his momentum beyond the end line. This play was ruled a touchdown by two officials on the scene, and play was not halted for additional review by the replay official.
And therein lies the rub. The first two plays look like obvious catches to me, and the third is questionable, yet the play-by-play sheets read the exact opposite. You may watch all three plays and come to different conclusions.
There may not be a way to simply the rule book while at the same time writing the rule that removes any ambiguity. Each catch is different. But there seems to be a concerted effort to common-sense-ify the catch rule moving forward.
“I think where we are unanimous [are] plays like the Dez Bryant play in Green Bay, going to the ground, the Calvin Johnson play from a couple of years ago,” New York Giants owner John Mara told ESPN last month. “I think all of us agree that those should be completions. So let’s write the language to make them completions.”
Ultimately, the catch rule may have to be treated like the exact definition of pornography — it’s hard to discern exactly where the line between Is and Is Not lies, but all of us know it when we see it. The NFL does seem to be moving toward a philosophy change, though, where there may be less emphasis on interpreting the catch rule as if it was chiseled into stone alongside the Ten Commandments and the Magna Carta atop Mount Sini and instead erring on the side of, “If it looks like a catch, it’s a catch.”
My personal rule? If the only way to describe a player’s action is by saying that he catches the ball before turning and/or falling, then he caught the ball.