Against the Grain: Why the ambiguity on catch rules is good for the NFL
Someday Hollywood might make an NFL version of Field of Dreams, and it will end like this:
Father and son walking by empty football field ...
“Hey Dad, do you wanna have a catch?”
“I’d like that ... but what’s a catch?”
It’s the big question in 2015, just like it was at the end of last season. But like most things with the NFL, the league is somehow able to get it right by having it so wrong. The confusing language on catching a football has generated more arguments than any other rule. But it’s not a threat to the integrity of the game. Instead, the ambiguity is another ingredient in the league’s recipe for growing the sport’s popularity to new heights.
Officiating is under constant attack. Just look at some of the comments this week:
The MMQB’s Peter King wrote that “the league is under attack from all corners on officiating—from the vagaries of pass interference and what constitutes a catch to the sheer number flags flying, game after game.”
Mike Ditka, to the Chicago Sun-Times, said “the officiating in the NFL right now is at an all-time low. It’s horrible. And you can’t say it’s anything but horrible, because it’s horrible. Even after instant replay, it’s not good. ... Now, if you can have the ball in your possession, you have control of the ball after a pass and that ball crosses the plane of the goal line, IT IS A TOUCHDOWN! PERIOD! That’s it. Forget it all.”
Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman had this to say: “The officiating this year is easily the worst I’ve ever seen. Mistake after mistake. Part of it is something I’ve said before: The athletes are simply too fast for 50-year-old dudes to keep up with. ... It’s the thickening of the rule book to the point that it’s difficult to tell what is a catch and what isn’t. In some cases, even the officials don’t know. That’s how bad the officiating has gotten.”
And now, my turn to sound off ... and this is going to be an unpopular stance: I think the officials overall do a good job. Most replay reviews are so close that the final call isn’t apparent even in slow-mo. Imagine calling that game in real speed and trying to keep the game flowing at a reasonable pace.
The change has not been the quality of officiating, it’s the increased coverage of it. The amount of scrutiny is at an all-time high, which makes it seem like the quality is at an all-time low. The men in stripes are under the microscope of high definition and social media, not to mention instant analysis from former officials like FOX’s Mike Pereira and CBS’s Mike Carey. Can you imagine if the army of experts, including all of us on social media, could pick apart Week 11 in 1978? Who knows what they were missing back then.
You can look back through the annals of NFL history and many of the great plays would have caused incredible controversy. Was the Immaculate Reception actually a catch? Did Drew Pearson push off on the defender on the original Hail Mary? Or if you really want controversy, Google the 1979 AFC Championship Game, when the Oilers’ Mike Renfro appeared to catch the go-ahead touchdown against the Steelers but was ruled out-of-bounds.
Officiating has always been flawed. We’ve changed as a society. Now more people have a voice, which is a good thing. Public pressure can affect the NFL competition committee. Fans’ complaints are heard more than at any point in NFL history. That is also a good thing.
The NFL will likely try to clean up the catch rules again this off-season. They tried last year and failed. After the Dez Bryant play in the playoffs, they removed the “football move” requirement for a catch and basically replaced it with receivers establishing themselves as runners. Unfortunately, officials have had trouble applying the rule consistently. Last week they took away a touchdown from the Giants’ Odell Bekcham Jr. His coach Tom Coughlin complained that the NFL had a double standard, because they ruled a catch on a similar play with Lions WR Golden Tate in Week 6.
Here was Coughlin afterward, to WFAN’s Mike Francesa, via NJ.com:
“Odell had it in his hands. He did not have a top hand and a bottom hand, both hands were parallel. And the ball was slapped out of his hand. Now, the difficult thing about this, Mike, is when you go back to the rule book, the Golden Tate precedent that was set, was a fumble that became a touchdown. I mean, he had the ball as long as, for as much time as Golden Tate did. Point-oh-seven seconds. One is ruled a touchdown, one isn't. The idea is consistency here, and it really continues to be a problem, in my opinion.”
Coughlin has valid points, and yet, the NFL’s stance that Beckham did not establish himself as a runner does make sense. It’s ambiguous, maddening and impossible to nail down. In other words, it’s perfect. It’s the kind of debate that has turned the NFL into a week-long national discussion.
No sport is able to spin its imperfections into gold like the NFL. With everything that is supposedly wrong, the league continues to peak in popularity. The “what’s a catch” question is just the latest example of a flaw that makes the game so compelling. It just makes people keep watching those catches on repeat, and it just keeps those plays on people’s minds all week long.
The Competition Committee has to address the catch rule again this off-season. I’d bet they return to something close to two feet down with possession. That makes more sense ... but will also probably lead to a whole set of unforeseen complications. I, for one, can’t wait.