Football has never been a more aerial game. In the same season that the Super Bowl celebrated its golden anniversary, we witnessed a high-water mark for the forward pass, which was introduced in 1906. More passes were thrown (18,298) and more receptions were pulled down (11,527) than in any other regular season in history. And it was done with unprecedented efficiency. A record 63% of passes were completed last fall, with 471 players having at least one reception for a combined 132,689 yards (another record) and 842 touchdowns (also a record). And yet one question is about to dominate the league’s offseason agenda: What, exactly, is a catch?
“I am just as lost as any fan or any player,” says Andrew Hawkins, the Browns’ 5-7 everyman wideout, who has played five NFL seasons. “There is no real definition. It just doesn’t make sense. You can’t quantify it.”
A football spiraling through the air is something of an art form. From the quarterback’s release to the receiver’s waiting hands, it’s a manifestation of trust and hope—the trajectory an esoteric thread tying together the offense’s timing, refined instincts and pure athleticism. In the midst of 22 men flying around the field, an airborne football is the pregnant pause between risk and reward, a fate up for grabs. Like all art, a simple game of pitch and catch is open to an array of interpretations … even for the men who make their living on the receiving end.
“I’ve heard so many different rules that it is hard to define it myself,” Seahawks wideout Doug Baldwin says. “You can’t completely define it. There is a little subjectivity.”
In December the NFL formed a six-member committee charged with creating more awareness among officials, coaches, players and fans about Rule 8, Article 3, which sets the parameters of a completed or intercepted pass. In January, the committee met with a group of current and former pass-catchers—Jordy Nelson, Randy Moss, Chad Lewis, Cris Carter, Steve Largent, Fred Biletnikoff and Tim Brown—to examine the rule’s language and review catch/no-catch plays. The issue is expected to be on front burner when the league meetings commence on Sunday, March 20 in Boca Raton, Fla.
In 2015, the rule was worded as such:
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; and
(c) maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has clearly become a runner (see 3-2-7 Item 2).
Note: If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered a loss of possession. He must lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession. If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body to the ground, it is not a catch.
For clarity, a point of emphasis was attached to the rule:
In order to complete a catch, a receiver must clearly become a runner. He does that by gaining control of the ball, touching both feet down and then, after the second foot is down, having the ball long enough to clearly become a runner, which is defined as the ability to ward off or protect himself from impending contact. If, before becoming a runner, a receiver falls to the ground in an attempt to make a catch, he must maintain control of the ball after contacting the ground. If he loses control of the ball after contacting the ground and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. Reaching the ball out before becoming a runner will not trump the requirement to hold onto the ball when you land. When you are attempting to complete a catch, you must put the ball away or protect the ball so it does not come loose.
The issue had come to a head after Dez Bryant’s overturned catch in the Cowboys’ NFC divisional round loss to the Packers at the end of the 2014 season. Running a fade down the left sideline, Bryant leaped high over cornerback Sam Shields for the ball. The Cowboys wideout came down with the ball, planted both feet and appeared to take a third step as he dived at the 1-yard line and reached out with the ball for more yards. As his arm hit the ground, the ball came loose and appeared to touch the ground and pop back up, whereupon Bryant gathered it back in. The official closest to the play ruled it a completion, but under challenge from Packers coach Mike McCarthy, the call was overturned because it was ruled Bryant hadn’t maintained possession throughout the process of the catch.
At the time, the rule required that a receiver maintain possession long enough to “make a football move.” In the eyes of many, it ought to have been a completion. “It’s tough to say that Dez didn’t have complete control of the ball before he reached out for more yards,” says Giants running back Shane Vereen, a frequent pass-catcher out of the backfield.
“Dez Bryant made a football play,” says Allen Robinson, the Jaguars’ Pro Bowler wideout. “If a football play is made after the catch has been possessed, then I don’t think the refs should take that away.”
But the rule wasn’t so clear-cut.
It also required that a receiver “maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground”—a clarifying tweak added before the 2011 season in direct response to Calvin Johnson’s controversial incompletion in the end zone the previous year. To some, it’s an arbitrary line tantamount to splitting hairs. “All of us know the Calvin Johnson rule,” Baldwin says. “There is a certain amount of time you need to hold on to the ball, but the NFL rules are a little drastic. Calvin caught the ball and he got up and he celebrated … it should have been a catch.”
Going into the 2015 season, the NFL had it all sorted out—or so it thought.
Where the standard had once been a “football move” recognized as “any act common to the game,” a pass was now deemed complete when a receiver had “the ball long enough to clearly become a runner,” with the same proviso that the ball must be firmly secured after making any contact with the ground. Still, the catch/no-catch debates continued to rage. The 139 coaches’ challenges over pass completions amounted to the most among all categories—which has been the case every year since the league started tracking that data in 2008.
The new gray area: Just how does a receiver become a runner? Shoulders turned upfield? A certain number of steps? The ball tucked away, high and tight? Having the ability to ward off or protect himself from impending contact, as the rule book suggests in black and white print that doesn’t always account for the sweeping speed of real time or the glacial pace of replay?
“From my standpoint, there is no real definition,” Hawkins says. “Most of the guys that I play with or have been around all feel the same way.”
Consider the following case studies from last season:
Week 3 | Sept. 27, 2015
Cincinnati at Baltimore
Tyler Eifert’s overturned touchdown against the Ravens called to mind Dez Bryant’s postseason no-catch. On fourth-and-goal from the Ravens’ 2, the Bengals’ tight end caught a pass from Andy Dalton with his back to the goal line. He turned to the end zone and stretched his arms across the goal line. After breaking the plane—which, if he were a runner, would have ended the play with a score—Eifert fell onto a Ravens defender. Officials signaled a touchdown, but the call was overturned because Eifert had not maintained possession through the process of the catch. Though Eifert seemingly turned upfield in the manner of a runner, his dive was ultimately determined to be a continuation of the catching process, meaning he had to maintain possession through the ground. Had he remained on his feet but been knocked backward after breaking the plane, it would have been a touchdown.
Week 5 | Oct. 11, 2015
Washington at Atlanta
Falcons running back Devonta Freeman caught a 12-yard pass, planted both feet and dove for the end zone with arms outstretched. Though he stretched the ball across the goal line, the ball eventually popped out of his hands after his back hit the ground while being tackled in the end zone. Ruled a touchdown on the field, the call was overturned on review. In both Eifert’s and Freeman’s case, the ruling was consistent.
Breaking the plane of the end zone does not guarantee a touchdown and end a passing play the way it does a running play. If anything happens to the ball before the catch is completed, it trumps the act of crossing the goal line. (In Freeman’s case, however, there’s more nuance to explore. If he had become a runner—which he had by virtue of being contacted by a defender without penalty and warding off enough contact to cross the goal line—why is it possible for the ground to ostensibly cause a “fumble” that jarred the ball loose?)
Week 6 | Oct. 18, 2015
Detroit at Chicago
Lions receiver Golden Tate caught a second-quarter pass in the end zone, took one step (maybe) and was hit by Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller, who pried the ball from Tate’s grasp as he tackled him to the ground. Linebacker Jonathan Anderson snagged the ball before it hit the ground. Touchdown? Interception? Officials ruled it a pick before the play automatically went to review.
On the FOX broadcast, former head of NFL officials and rules analyst Mike Pereira didn’t think the interception ruling should be overturned. “Did he clearly become a runner?” Pereira asked. “Because breaking the plane does not apply until you become a runner. In slow motion it looks like it might be, but the ball gets stripped very quickly. So, to me, he does not become the runner, he’s not able to ward off contact. It’s ruled not a catch at that point so it becomes an interception.”
The ruling on the field was reversed. Touchdown. Officials determined that Tate had controlled the pass at the goal line because he had both feet down and enough time to become a runner before the ball was stripped.
“I think the rule might need some more clarification,” FOX announcer Chris Myers said.
“Maybe I need more clarification!” Pereira replied.
Week 10 | Nov. 15, 2015
New England at New York Giants
His Giants trailing the Patriots, 26-24, Odell Beckham Jr. caught a five-yard touchdown pass for the apparent go-ahead score on New York’s final drive. Beckham appeared to have both feet down in the end zone just before Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler swiped the ball out of his hands. The catch was originally ruled a touchdown, but reversed because Beckham had not maintained control long enough to become a runner. “Obviously, as a Giant, I think it was a touchdown,” Vereen says. “He had control, he was in the end zone, but then shortly after that the ball was clearly knocked out of his hands, so then you go back to the question: How long does someone have to hold on to the ball for it to be called a completed catch?”
This was reminiscent of Golden Tate’s play, but with the opposite initial ruling and outcome. Both Beckham and Tate caught a pass in the end zone and were stripped of the ball soon after. Watching the two plays side-by-side, it’s hard to isolate the difference in possession time—both appear to lose the ball at the same time their second foot plants. Which, according to the letter of the rule, would mean an incompletion for both situations.
“It’s so varied from crew to crew in the officiating,” Chiefs receiver Jason Avant says. “That’s why everybody is saying we don’t know, because different guys see the game a different way.”
Divisional Round | Jan. 18, 2016
Green Bay at Arizona
In the third quarter, Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald caught a 22-yard pass near the sideline. He took a few steps before falling to the ground and bobbling the ball as he landed on the ground—not unlike Devonta Freeman hitting the ground and losing the ball in the end zone for an incompletion.
The ruling here was a completed catch, but Packers coach Mike McCarthy threw the challenge flag, arguing that Fitzgerald didn’t complete the process of making a catch—the same point of contention he’d made that overruled Dez Bryant’s catch the previous postseason. This time McCarthy lost the challenge. Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, explained on Twitter: “Ruling on field was that he was a runner before ball hit the ground. Not enough to change.”
“I don't know what the hell a catch is anymore,” an exasperated McCarthy said to reporters at the post-game press conference. “It’s ridiculous.”
Super Bowl | Feb. 7, 2016
Carolina vs. Denver
Trailing 3-0 midway through the first quarter, the Panthers had a first-and-10 at their own 15-yard line. Cam Newton dropped back and threw a 20-yard strike to Jerricho Cotchery, who made a bobbling catch while being wrapped up and taken down by Broncos safety Darian Stewart. As Cotchery’s right elbow hit the field, the ball shifted position and possibly touched the turf. Cotchery appeared to maintain control, pinning the ball to his body as he rolled over. Officials ruled the catch incomplete, and Carolina coach Ron Rivera quickly challenged the play. He lost because, as Blandino explained on Twitter, “The ball touched the ground and slid up his body. Not enough evidence to change the call on the field.”
For a call to be overturned on review, there must be indisputable visual evidence that the ruling on the field was incorrect. Showtime’s Inside the NFL caught a mic’d up conversation between Rivera and referee Clete Blakeman, who told Rivera that had Cotchery’s catch initially been ruled complete, it wouldn’t have been overturned because there wasn’t strong enough evidence to suggest either a completion or incompletion.
“A big percentage of catches that the officials go either way on—whether it is a fumble or a drop—it’s just about interpretation and what the first call was,” says Allen Robinson, the Jacksonville wideout.
Dez Bryant weighed in on Twitter as the moment unfolded:
“I still don’t understand how that wasn’t a catch,” says Hawkins, the Browns wideout. “I don’t understand the review process. How are we still messing up, with as many camera angles as we have?”
* * *
Receivers have adapted strategies to avoid making mistakes in the gray areas of the current rule.
“My focus when I catch the ball is making sure it doesn’t move an inch,” Jets receiver Brandon Marshall says. “I think it’s ridiculous, but that’s the rules.”
Jason Avant, the Chiefs wideout, says he makes sure to not let the ball move or touch the ground. “Sometimes you can make a great play and during that moment of athleticism, when you are in the air and diving, you can let your guard down,” he says. “You have to be overly careful or conscious of completing the process of the catch.”
“I think catch and tuck,” Shane Vereen says. “If I can tuck it into my arm, then I can start running faster. It’s the best way to complete a catch because it shows that you are already starting to run and you are already making a football-like move.”
Allen Robinson repeats a two-word mantra in his head to make sure his catches are irrefutable. “Stand up,” Robinson says. “I think about standing up with the football. If you’re going to the ground and you maintain possession from the catch to standing up with the ball, it’s ensures there are no ifs or ands.”
Some players feel that if a gray-area reception/incompletion goes under review, the result is as good as a coin flip. “The biggest discrepancy is that all the officials don’t always get the same memo,” Avant says. “One year something is a catch, the next year it’s not.”
“I don’t think the officials have a clear understanding of what a catch is,” Doug Baldwin says. “It changes from week to week.”
The perceived lack of consistency in the rule’s application appears to be the main problem. That’s why the catch rule committee—comprised of Bill Polian (former NFL executive), Ken Whisenhunt(coach/offensive coordinator), Jim Schwartz (coach/defensive coordinator), Joe Philbin (coach/offensive coordinator), James Thrash (former receiver), and Tom Finken (former side judge)—has been primarily charged with increasing awareness about the intricacies of the rule to help minimize controversy. In a February NFL Network interview, Blandino said he doesn’t anticipate the catch rule committee making any major proposals to the competition committee. “We feel the rule is in a really good place right now,” he said. “I really feel it’s just communicating the rule and educating and showing video examples of what is and what isn’t a catch.”
That educational campaign kicked off this month with a video narrated by Blandino, who distills the process of completing a catch into three steps:
• Secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
• Touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
• Maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has clearly become a runner
If a receiver fails to complete all three elements, the pass is incomplete. The explanation sounds simple enough, except the process of describing a process is often a complicated undertaking.
Mark Richard is a professor of philosophy at Harvard whose passions include watching the Patriots and analyzing the way language works. “A catch is like pornography,” he says. “We recognize it when we see it.”
Some catches are unmistakable, and perhaps none more pure than Joe Montana’s finding Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone for “The Catch” in the 1981 NFC title game. But even when catches defy convention—Lynn Swann’s juggling act in Super Bowl X or David Tyree’s helmet grab in Super Bowl XLII—they still fit into the paradigm outlined by Blandino. The confusion exists in the gray area where issues over possession and player safety are seemingly at odds, and rulings are subject to interpretations over a player’s momentum or intent.
“The definition of a process like catching is usually something that has to be applied in practice, and applying something in practice can be messy and difficult,” says Richard, whose books include Meaning and When Truth Gives Out. “With a process like catching, it may be practically impossible to come up with a way to make the sort of judgments fans and players and coaches demand.”
Richard says the catch rule is a mess because it is “disjunctive.” It covers two different conditions that could result in a catch. Picture it like a flow chart. At the top is securing possession with either two feet or another body part down. From there, the chart branches off in two directions:
1) Does the player remain upright? If yes, he must establish himself as a runner.
2) Is the player going to the ground? If yes, he must maintain control of the ball after contacting the ground.
But what of those situations where a receiver catches the ball, seemingly establishes himself as a runner, then goes to the ground?
Players can get downright philosophical themselves when asked to define a catch. The foundation of the catch rule, they say, is maintaining control of the ball after two feet or another body part other than a hand make contact with the ground. But how long is long enough to establish that control?
“I don’t think you can put a specific time on a catch,” Baldwin says. “A clear maintaining of control of the football, whether that takes a second or two seconds, having complete control of the ball. It’s clear to any receiver who is watching the game.”
“If the ball is in your hands for more than one second, it should be a catch,” says Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs.
“If the receiver possesses the ball with two feet down in the end zone or breaks the plane of the end zone, I think that should be a catch,” Avant says. “I don’t believe a guy should have to complete the process of a catch through the ground when it comes to the end zone. A lot of guys, if they are running with the ball, they reach out for the pylon and the ball pops up. What’s the difference between that and catching the ball in the end zone?”
“A catch is such a flexible idea,” Vereen says. “There are a lot of moving parts with it, and every situation is different than the next.”
When asked how he would rewrite the rulebook, Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald proposed something less complicated: If a receiver catches the ball with two feet on the ground and turns to run with it, that should be a catch. If he gets the ball stripped, that should be a fumble.
“There are too many rules, too much gray area, too many judgments the refs have to make. It needs to be simpler,” Fitzgerald says. “The Dez Bryant catch against Green Bay should have been a catch. He had the ball and was turning upfield to try to advance the ball. That's a catch.”
Fitzgerald’s proposal calls to mind the 1982 edition of the catch rule:
[A receiver] must control the ball throughout the act of clearly touching both feet, or any other part of his body other than his hand(s), to the ground inbounds. If the player is hit causing the ball to come loose simultaneously while clearly touching inbounds both feet, or any other part of the body except the hand(s), there is no possession. If, when the ball comes loose, there is any question whether the above acts are simultaneous, the ruling shall be no possession.
The NFL of the 1980s, of course, was a headhunter’s paradise when receivers went over the middle. If not in perfect lockstep, the catch rule has evolved alongside a mandate to protect defenseless players. To turn back the clock and simplify the definition of a catch would likely invite dangerous contact on vulnerable receivers, who in theory wouldn’t be given the luxury to start the process of a catch.
Fitzgerald, however, isn’t moved.
“Guys have been trying to kill me for years,” he says. “It’s a violent game. That’s just part of the game.”
Vereen agrees that the league’s clarifications have only overcomplicated the rule. “We are trying to make a perfect game, but it’s not going to ever be that way. I don’t think there is one rule that is going to take away the confusion. I say, just catch the ball!”
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