Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Another game-altering catch was erased by a confusing and illogical rule. May we never hear the phrase “football move” again

By Greg A. Bedard
January 12, 2015

DENVER — Stop the madness with what is and isn’t a catch, NFL. Please. Enough is enough.

Different plays in both NFL divisional playoff games on Sunday showed exactly how screwed up the NFL rule book is. Both plays also showed, coincidentally, how simple it would be to fix.

In the biggest play of the weekend, Dez Bryant’s 31-yard catch on 4th-and-1 against the Packers was overturned and ruled an incomplete pass. On the play, Bryant clearly possessed the ball with two feet on the ground (he took three steps, actually), and then, after having both his knee and elbow hit the ground, the ball popped up. Even though he caught the bobble, it was an incomplete pass.

In the Colts-Broncos game, Indianapolis punt returner Josh Cribbs caught a punt and was simultaneously drilled by Denver’s Omar Bolden. After Cribbs fell to the ground, the ball popped out and the Broncos jumped on the ball. On the field, the officials ruled it was a fumble that was recovered by Denver. After a replay review, Cribbs was ruled to be down by contact.

To summarize. Bryant took three steps and was not ruled down by contact. Cribbs was drilled in about a half second and deemed to possess the ball.


Welcome to the NFL rule book, where 50 shades of gray titillate and frustrate, all at the same time.

The overturn of the Josh Cribbs fumble was technically correct, but it seemed to contradict the Dez Bryant ruling from earlier in the day. (Harry How/Getty Images) The overturn of the Josh Cribbs fumble was correct accruing to the rule book, but it seemed to contradict the Dez Bryant ruling from earlier in the day. (Harry How/Getty Images)

The Bryant play came down to the third step in the three-step process to secure an NFL catch. Here are the first two parts:

Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3. Completed or Intercepted Pass. A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:

(a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and

(b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands.

Now we get to the dicey third part.

…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.).

And its cousin, the “Player Going to the Ground” addendum in Item 1.

If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.

Settle This
Greg A. Bedard earned his u201cWet Blanket of Reasonu201d nickname for his long history of tempering rabid fan enthusiasm with cold, hard, irrefutable facts. In his Thursday column for The MMQB, he takes the same approach to settle your arguments on a weekly basis.
Email ideas for future topics to talkback@themmqb.com with the subject line 'SettleThis, or tweet at @GregABedard.
On the Bryant catch, it was ruled that he didn’t perform a football act, even though he switched hands and appeared to lunge for the goal line. NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino admitted on NFL Network that Bryant’s lunge was in the realm of a football act, it just wasn’t enough of a football act.

“In order for it to be an act common to the game, a football move, it’s got to be more obvious than that: reaching the ball out with both hands, extending it for the goal line,” Blandino said.

The Cribbs play is a punt, but it’s essentially officiated the same way as a pass reception (lack of possession would be a muff). It sure didn’t look like Cribbs had time to perform a football act, or take a breath, before Bolden drilled Cribbs. Oh, but he did. Having your forward progress stopped is a football act, according to FootballZebras on Twitter. And since Cribbs was in the process of being tackled, he was down by contact. Let’s not even get into the hypothetical of what might have happened had Cribbs jumped for the ball like Bryant.

The Cribbs ruling made complete sense in that it lined up with what we’re seeing, and with the rule book. Cribbs had possession of the ball, and the ball didn’t come out until he went to the ground after contact.

That’s the problem with the Bryant ruling, and the infamous Calvin Johnson ruling in 2010. What we’re seeing is a catch. Even Blandino understands that. NFL Network host Rich Eisen asked about the people who understand the rule but still think it looks like a catch.

“I think that’s a fair point,” Blandino said. “I think people look at that and say that’s a catch.”

But it’s not in the NFL, because of the third part of the catch process, and Blandino went on to explain why.

“But I think it’s about consistency and it’s about, OK, if we make that a catch, then we have to look at all these other plays where receivers go to the ground, and where do we draw the line?” Blandino said. “Currently we have a line where it’s control, both feet, and do something with it. If we make this a catch, where do we draw the line with a lot of other plays where it’s clearly incomplete by rule and it will become even more inconsistent. It’s something that we’ll review with the Competition Committee. We review it every year. I can understand the people that say that looks like a catch, and I don’t think that’s that far-fetched, but in order to be consistent, we have to draw the line somewhere, and that’s where the current line is.”

Well, if reasonable people can look at the Bryant play and deem it a catch, as Blandino admitted, then the rule, which was used to explain why it isn’t a catch, stinks. And it should be thrown out.

No more of this "football act" nonsense. A catch should simply be possession, two feet and/or body part, and then down by contact, like the Cribbs play. Bryant’s play was a catch. Johnson’s play was a catch as well.

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The only downside to taking out the football act part is that there will be more fumbles, especially on hits just after the reception. Who cares? If a receiver has clearly established possession and two feet down, it’s on him to secure the ball. The NFL shouldn’t be in the business of bailing out receivers. In last year’s playoff loss to the Chargers, Bengals running back Giovanni Bernard’s fumble was upheld because there wasn’t clear information to determine he didn’t make a football act (as Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis thought when he challenged the play; he wanted an incomplete pass). Bernard caught the ball, took two steps and lost the ball. That’s a catch and a fumble without the football act stuff. That’s the way it should be.

Before I wrap this up, I just want to state for the record (and to the pleasure of my Packers friends, I’m sure) that I could argue Dez Bryant caught the ball a number of different ways. For one, while the ball probably did hit the ground, I never saw an angle that definitively showed that it did, so the ruling on the field could have stood without “clear and irrefutable evidence.”

Even if you want to say the ball hit the ground, I don’t think Bryant lost control when/if it did. It looked as if his arm was around the ball as he was hitting the ground and just after. As he rolled over, after hitting the ground, the ball popped out. And then he caught the ball again. (If Bryant didn’t catch the ball again, certainly it should have been ruled incomplete.)

After securing possession and getting two feet down, Bryant switched the ball in his hands. If that’s not a move conducive to football, I don’t know what is.

Then, finally, Bryant caught the ball, got two feet down and then, while in the process of reaching for the goal line, his knee and elbow contacted the ground before the ball hit the ground, so he could be down by contact right there.

But I digress.

If it looks like a catch, it should be a catch. No more trying to determine what is or isn’t a football move. A catch should simply be possession and two feet down. Anything after that is up to the players. Such a change in the rule book would take the officials out of a few more plays, and let the players determine more of the game. That’s what we all want to see, and something we can all agree on.

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