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.