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NFL Catch Rule Could Change If Complaints Remain Consistent in Wake of Patriots-Steelers

Competition committee will again discuss catch rules when they convene in offseason, so Steelers fans—and anyone else who felt wronged Sunday—should continue to gripe

Pittsburgh Phil had to take the day off from work Tuesday.

“The pain,” Phil Gennaro, a 47-year-old insurance adjuster, said Tuesday evening from his home in Pittsburgh. “The pain. The pain is real. It’s not going away. I was down in [gritty city neighborhood] the Strip District today, doing some shopping for Christmas Eve. We do the Feast of the Seven Fishes, my family, every Christmas Eve. I went down to get the fish. You could feel it in the air. Usually, you’re down there around Christmas, people are laughing, happy, excited about the season. Today: No one laughing. They’re zombies down there. Dawn of the dead.”

The anger over the interpretation of the what-is-a-catch rule still was an open wound in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. When Steelers tight end Jesse James caught the ball with 28 seconds left in the Patriots-Steelers game, and reached the ball over the goal line with full possession, then hit the ground and the ball moved on the force of impact with planet earth, what appeared to be a touchdown and a 31-27 Steelers lead disappeared. The fact that the Steelers lost to their AFC nemeses was hurtful enough in the short term. But it likely means the Steelers, if they face New England again this year, will have to meet them in Foxboro. When the Steelers have faced Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in Foxboro, they’re 0-5. And if the Patriots win out at home (they have the 8-6 Bills and 5-9 Jets in Foxboro in the last two weeks), any rematch of Pittsburgh and New England in January would come in Massachusetts. Home of Terrible Towel nightmares.

So about the overturned James touchdown: I detailed the nuts and bolts in my Monday column. By the letter of the law, the officials got it right. When James went to the ground, the ball moved, meaning that technically he did not complete the act of the catch. Ref Tony Corrente got it right. As Phil Gennaro said with some bitterness: “The letter of the rule—you have to complete the act of the catch. I guess he didn’t.”


Now that the game’s in the rear-view mirror, what next? Steelers coach and competition committee member Mike Tomlin said Tuesday: “We all can acknowledge that all of this needs to be revisited. We have this similar discussion week in, week out. As a member of the committee, I acknowledge we got our work cut out for us this offseason.”

Two years ago, the NFL gathered some very smart people in and out of the game to discuss the controversy over catches. Bill Polian, Ken Whisenhunt, Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Fred Biletnikoff, and maybe a half-dozen others. They met at least twice and reported their opinion to the league’s competition committee. They said, in effect, The rule’s probably the best it can be. It’s flawed, but there’s no perfect rule about what a catch is.

Nothing’s changed. If the rule’s going to change, it needs some momentum, and some common sense. There is no perfect rule.

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But I do think if Steeler fans, or fans of the game in general, want to do something about it, they can’t just let it die now. Rules in the NFL often take a year or three to change. The new PAT rule (attempting the point-after-touchdown from the 15-yard-line instead of the 2) took three or four years of debate to make a reality. Legislating what a catch is has already been a hot topic in the past couple of years. But I would urge those who truly want to do something to not let it go. Hang on. Keep the fervor. And send your letters and social-media comments to Roger Goodell (he is big in the rule changes, even off-season) and to league officiating czar Al Riveron (who will have a say in changes) and to the chair of the competition committee, Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay. When the scouting combine is held in Indianapolis in late February, that will be the first meeting of Goodell, Riveron and the full competition committee, along with some veteran, influential players. That’s when they need to hear from you.

Do not go wacky now and then forget it. That is not how to change the rule. Go wacky, and be active, in February.

The only suggestion I have is this one: I think the league should strongly consider making the kind of catch that James made a legal one. You catch it with indisputable possession, you advance it with full possession, you break the plane of the goal line with full possession … and then, if you fumble when jarred at the ground, it’s still a touchdown. Would that change the rule significantly? I don’t think so. But it would acknowledge that if you catch the ball with certainty and move the ball down the field (in James’ case, he caught it at about the 4-foot-line then stretched it clearly over the goal line before it was jarred loose) without the ball moving, it would be a touchdown.

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I left the game Sunday night feeling like I’d seen a great one. But I felt slightly cheated. A caught ball pierced the plane of the goal line and was jostled once the ball hit the turf. Not fumbled; jostled. This is not worthy of the Warren Commission. The call was correct, by today’s rules. I just think tomorrow’s rules should be up for vigorous debate on catches near the goal line. And think fans should have an intense voice in the process. So renew this intensity in late February, when you hear the combine is about to convene in Indianapolis.

Now for your email...

Everyone is talking about how the NFL analyzed the Jesse James catch play correctly under the letter of the rule, and then discussing how flawed the catch rule is in the NFL. While I definitely agree that the catch rule is a huge problem, what no one seems to recognize is that the James play was analyzed using the incorrect standard, which is really the whole problem and why the NFL bungled this call so badly. In a legal setting, when a higher court reviews a lower court decision, they first decide the standard that must be used, and then look at the applicable law through the lens of that standard.​

Here, the officials on the field (the “lower court”) ruled the James play as a touchdown. Once that play was set for review, as I understand it, the replay official has to analyze the play using the standard of “indisputable video evidence” that the call on the field was incorrect.  Thus, the replay official should not be looking at this play to see if a catch was made or not. Rather, the official should be looking for “indisputable video evidence” that no catch was made. In this situation, while the ball does move, it is absolutely not indisputable that it was moved because the receiver did not maintain possession. The replay official should have upheld the call due to a lack of “indisputable video evidence.” The NFL did not actually follow its own rules in making this call.
—Richard, Ray, Ohio

I do agree with part of what you’re saying. If 50 guys in a bar in Topeka with no rooting interest watched the replays for 90 seconds, I believe about 35 or 40 would have said it should have been overturned. That’s not indisputable. And the way the NFL has changed the “indisputable” standard is disturbing to me. So I think you’re right in that regard. However, I think there was enough evidence, as narrow and close as it may have been, to overturn the call.

The NFL needs to either change the standard for reversing calls on the field or educate its officials as to the meaning of "incontrovertible," which is defined as "not able to be denied or disputed." In short, if you can write about a reversal with descriptions such as "ridiculously close" or, as Tony Romo put it, "this could go either way," it is able to be disputed and is not incontrovertible. It is probable, maybe even likely, James lost control of the ball and it hit the ground, but it is not beyond reasonable dispute. The call on the field should have been upheld under the league's standard, even if there may have been a good (but not indisputable) argument that it shouldn't have been.​
—Jim M., Montpelier, Vt.

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You have a vote.  It is an absolute sham that former Falcons linebacker Tommy Nobis is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It speaks to the regional bias of the voting body. Not only was he a Hall Fame player, he was a Hall of Fame person. Please correct this with your peers. Love the website.​
—David L.

Thanks for your kind words, David. I don’t think it speaks to regional bias. Nobis played for a franchise that won 4.6 games a year in his 11 NFL seasons and never made the playoffs … certainly not his fault, because he was an excellent player. The problem, as I see it, is that Nobis played in an era with zero analytics, little NFL Films footage documenting his greatness and, to the best of my knowledge, not a single one of the 48 members of the Hall of Fame voting committee ever saw him play in person. (He retired in 1976.) It’s going to take a concerted campaign, and someone to watch all available tape/film of Nobis, to wade through the emotion and make a cogent case for him in front of the Seniors Committee of the Hall. Also, what Nobis did off the field after his career does not matter to the Hall. It matters in life, but not to Hall voters.

How can you only consider Sean McVay for coach of the year? How can you not give any thought to Doug Pederson? Consider: the Eagles lost their left tackle, best running back (Darren Sproles), middle linebacker, star QB and starting cornerback (Ronald Darby) for two months, yet Pederson still has a team most considered to be the worst in the division playing with the best record in football? What more does Pederson have to do? Ridiculous.​
—Andrew R., Toronto

Rams win total the past 10 years: 3, 2, 1, 7, 2, 7, 7, 6, 7, 4.
Eagles win total the past 10 years: 8, 9, 11, 10, 8, 4, 10, 10, 7, 7.

The Eagles had a no-doubt quarterback of the future entering the season in Carson Wentz. Rams had an iffy quarterback, Jared Goff, who went 0-7 and looked bad in his rookie year. Pederson has done a terrific job in getting the Eagles to 12-2. Sean McVay, who fixed Goff, has the Rams at their first double-digit-win season in 14 years, their first winning season in 14 years. Unlike in the baseball writers’ vote, the 50 voters for the NFL awards vote for one guy—one MVP, one coach, etc. So it’s all or nothing, unless you choose to split your vote. My opinion is McVay has taken the Rams farther than any coach has taken his team. Could this change in the final two weeks? We’ll see.

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Where's Minesota’s Mike Zimmer in the Coach of the Year discussion? Normally, the guy who wins NFL Coach of the Year is the one whose team exceeds expectations the most (because if it wasn't, Belichick should probably win every year). I get that the Jags and Rams have definitely exceeded expectations, based on recent year's performances respectively, than the Vikings. However, I'm not sure those expectations are fair. The Jags and Rams rosters are both chock full of top ten picks and premium free agents. The talent on paper is ridiculous! On the other hand, the Vikings have the better record of the three teams, have beaten better teams in general (based on strength of victory), and they're doing all of this with a journeyman QB and a roster with arguably less premium draft/free agent "talent". Cheers.
—Brett, Ottawa

All fair. But the Vikings were 19-13 in the last two years. They weren’t coming from the depths that McVay and Doug Marrone were.

Hi Peter, I'm a great admirer of your writing and a regular reader of your column. In your postcard from Seattle's training camp, you wrote of the fiercely competitive atmosphere resulting in skirmishes and fights that Pete Carroll seemed to condone, if not encourage. In the context of two consecutive and meaningful games in which Seahawk players variously lost their composure, engaged in fights on the field and/or were ejected, I thought you missed an opportunity to revisit that analysis and link it to current events. I think Carroll's deliberate invitation of friction and instability during camp—not to mention his dependence on combustible personalities such as Richard Sherman for player leadership—is related to Seattle's inability to handle adversity in crucial late-season games.​
—Jay, Ottawa

Thanks for remembering what I wrote, Jay. It bothered me then, and it’s proven to be a harbinger of unfortunate things to follow. I don’t like chippiness for the sake of chippiness.

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