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ControversyLions victimized by ‘process of catch’ rule, but they wasn’t robbed

Lions victimized by ‘process of catch’ rule, but they wasn’t robbed

Week 1: Lions at Bears

It was a bitter pill to swallow for any team, let alone for the hapless Lions, who have cobbled together just two wins in as many seasons.

With 31 seconds to go, the Lions seemingly took the lead on a 25-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson (video). As the celebration begins, officials signal an incomplete catch. Referee Gene Steratore explained, “The ruling on the field is that the runner did not complete the catch through the process of the catch.” He further elaborated to a pool reporter following the game:

Q: What is the rule used on the near Detroit touchdown at the end of the game?
Steratore: The ruling is that in order for the catch to be completed he has got to maintain possession of the ball throughout the entire process of the catch.

Q: He was on his behind before he rolled over. If he stayed on his behind would it have been a touchdown?
Steratore: No. We don’t play with the two feet or one knee or anything of that scenario. We’re talking now about the process of the catch. He’s catching the football, as he goes to the ground, he must maintain possession of the ball throughout the entire process. So as he continues to fall if he fell with two feet and his elbow hit the ground and came out it would be incomplete.

Q: It looked like he had the ball up in one hand while on his rear end, but there was continuation?
Steratore: Well, the process was not finished until he finished that roll and the entire process of that catch.

Q: How long did it take to determine that?
Steratore: We had the normal time [one minute] as far as the video was concerned. We would not run it any longer.

The “process of the catch” is a topic we covered frequently last season. It is also the most misunderstood.

The advent of the catch-process rule was to challenge professional receivers to demonstrate full control of a ball, even while doing so acrobatically or while colliding with the ground. It also eliminated “cheap” fumble opportunities, where a pass was marginally complete, and a receiver coughs up a ball that he really did not have full control over in the first place.

The complexity of the process of the catch was apparent in last year’s opening weekend, when Raiders receiver Louis Murphy went down to the turf and was ruled incomplete. It seemed that the NFL definition needed an offseason refinement, as there were similar issues in the next three weeks. However, the NFL maintained that a catch ruling as it was stated in the rulebook, Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, 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 after he touches the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone.

In the Lions game, Johnson caught the ball in the air, and then contacted the ground with both feet, his left hand, and his knees.  When Johnson was in, essentially, a seated position, he was not down, because he needed his second hand to stop his momentum of falling further. It would have been safer had he tucked the ball in after making the two-handed grab, rather than holding in one hand.

(As a side note, the Fox television announcers Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick—at least in the clip I saw—showed a good understanding of the process of the catch, which is not often heard from the game callers.)

Calls to revise this rule, however, will revert us to the days where two toe taps and a brief fingertip grip on the ball qualified as a completed catch. That is hardly a professional standard.

Q. What is the rule used on the near Detroit touchdown at the end of the game?
A. The ruling is that in order for the catch to be completed he has got to maintain possession of the ball throughout the entire process of the catch.

Q. He was on his behind before he rolled over. If he stayed on his behind would it have been a touchdown?
A. No. We don’t play with the two feet or one knee or anything of that scenario. We’re talking now about the process of the catch. He’s catching the football, as he goes to the ground, he must maintain possession of the ball throughout the entire process. So as he continues to fall if he fell with two feet and his elbow hit the ground and came out it would be incomplete.

Q. It looked like he had the ball up in one hand while on his rear end, but there was continuation?
A. Well, the process was not finished until he finished that roll and the entire process of that catch.

Q. How long did it take to determine that?
A. We had the normal time [one minute] as far as the video was concerned. We would not run it any longer.

Ben Austro
Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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2 thoughts on “Lions victimized by ‘process of catch’ rule, but they wasn’t robbed

  1. I’ve yet to see the word “process” in any of the rules.
    If you read the rule, and apply it correctly, you will agree it is a catch.

    “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 after he touches the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone.”

    Calvin did maintain control of the ball after “HE” touches the ground. I believe this to be the crux of the confusion over this rule.

    People are misinterpreting the “player” touching the ground for the “ball” touching the ground.
    Again,
    “he must maintain control of the ball after he touches the ground”
    Calvin maintained control of the ball before, during, and after he touched the ground. How is this so hard to understand?
    The rule is fine, the interpretation if flawed.
    Again, the whole “Process” argument makes no sense since it’s not written in any rule.
    Is this a verbal understanding that the officials have with the league?
    Is it really that vague?
    Are the NFL and the officials really just making up words to this rule as they go along?
    Can an official call a catch incomplete if the player jumps up with the ball and tosses to the official, say, 30 seconds after the catch?
    Does a player really need to hang onto the ball inbounds, and wait for all the officials on the field to signal a good catch?
    Remember, the official closest to the play signaled a touch down.

    The call was wrong. The interpretation of the rule was wrong.
    It’s as simple as that.

  2. Agreed. I’m reminded of the Troy Polamalu interception in the ’05 Divisional Playoff game against the Colts that was reversed in replay because he lost the ball “in the process” of going to the ground, even though the replay clearly showed him losing the ball “in the process” of getting back to his feet to run with the ball. It was an INT and a fumble, recovered by him, but was called an incomplete pass.

    The catch is complete once the player hits the ground with possession, not after he’s done getting back up, or rolling around sufficiently like someone on fire, or handing the ball back to the official.

    And somewhat related, why is it that the ground can’t cause a fumble, nor can it cause an incompletion if the receiver has control going to the ground (the Bert Emanuel rule), but it can cause an incompletion if the ball hits the ground and comes loose even after the player’s body is already down? Makes no sense.

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