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Rules fix comes with a catch

What can happen when one provision is taken out of the rules? Plenty.




This post has been updated to reflect the release of the proposal wording.

The NFL’s Competition Committee is weighing in on several rules changes which will be presented to the owners at the annual meeting next week. The full text of the proposals were released Thursday night. The rules proposals require a two-thirds vote of the owners to pass; in the past three years, the owners have approved 23 Competition Committee proposed rules and 0 were rejected or tabled. (This does not include bylaws or policy changes that the committee has proposed.)

The three-step process will remain the same: catch, 2 feet down, and have the ability to make a football move. Although there have been various ways of saying the same thing, this is largely how it has appeared in the rules for 8 decades.

The rule established possession, by catch or any loose ball for that matter, when a player “has held [the] ball long enough to give him such control as to enable him to perform any act common to the game.” Some of the more recent confusion over “transitioning to a runner” part of the catch process was a creation of the Dez Bryant catch reversal in the 2014 playoffs. While the enforcement and interpretation remained the same, the seeds sown in the post-Dez rule rewrite only reaped more confusion and a perception of a moving goalpost. While the “what is a catch?” drumbeat intensified, from an officiating perspective, there has been near unanimity on catches in film study, with maybe one or two catches a year landing in a disputed grey area.

The 2017 issues seem to have stemmed from the standard of evidence used in replay under its first season as a true centralized operation. That has separately been addressed with a revision that has a practical effect to stay with the call on the field more often. This might have been enough on its own to repair most of the popular distrust on the catch calls.

The rule will, if passed, largely remove the requirement that a receiver going to the ground must “survive the ground” with possession of the ball. This has always been a controversial provision that has lead to a prolonged catch process on some plays deemed catches in the court of public opinion. I think the calculus for years has been that it is acceptable to extend the catch process and rule more passes incomplete in favor of greater consistency. The provision also addressed the fact that a falling player cannot theoretically make a football move, because he can do nothing under his own power other than fall, brace for a fall, and maybe futilely reach the ball forward.

Under the new proposal, in order to complete a catch or interception, a player must secure control of the ball while it is in the air, and have both feet, or any body part that is not the hands (the old John Madden adage, one knee equals two feet), touch in bounds. These first two of three necessities for a catch are not any different than in years past.

The third part of the proposed rule returns to the standard that a player must perform an act common to the game, such as turning upfield, tucking the ball away, taking a third step, or reaching the ball over the goal line or line to gain. The provision that the receiver needs to maintain control until he has the ball long enough to become a runner would be removed from the wording of the rule. Also, strict provisions of maintaining control of the ball are also stricken from the proposed rule, which will allow some ball movement in securing the catch.

One subsequent note states that if a receiver hits the ground and loses possession of the ball before they make an act common to the game, it is an incomplete pass. This may sound like the old, vilified “going to the ground” requirement, but it is actually a bit different. If a receiver has not yet become a runner, but takes a third step or extends the ball, then loses it, it will still be a catch. In the Dez Bryant play, he had not yet become a runner — the ex post facto wording of the approved rule interpretation — however he did take a third step and extend the ball toward the goal line. Under the new provision, he indeed made a catch.

In 2017, it was the catch that was taken away from Steelers receiver Jesse James that became the rallying cry for reform. In this case, James was going to the ground during the process of the catch, so that extended the process through the contact with the ground. The video with the original explanation on the call:

Under the proposed rule, James’s action of turning and making a play for the goal line is an act common to the game, and now takes precedence in determining the catch over any contact with the ground. 

Perhaps the best example of the effect of the ground provision is illustrated in a catch that predates the ground provision. In Super Bowl XII — yes, all the way back to when they only had one X in the Roman numeral — Cowboys receiver Butch Johnson made a spectacular grab at the goal line and lost the ball upon contacting the end zone. The late field judge Bob Wortman ruled this a touchdown.

So, in your opinion, does this count as a catch? Did the end zone involvement affect your decision (i.e., breaking the plane)? 

This becomes a little more ambiguous if this play goes through the replay machine in 2018, presuming the catch rule proposal passes. Johnson has only one foot down when he first gets control of the ball. This means when he lands, this counts as “two feet,” which should then be followed by the third part in the process: possessing the ball long enough to have the ability to do something. In this case, that “something” is losing control of the ball, which would reverse the touchdown to incomplete.

If Johnson is able to sneak a second step in before falling, does that change the ruling? Should it? Under the new standards, this would be (1) control, (2) two feet down, and (3) arguably a completed catch mid-fall. Stretching the ball to the end zone, even though not necessary to break the plane, could be the necessary ingredient to cinch a catch determination. It does make it more difficult to officiate in real time, and will add extra reliance on replay.

When merely removing the ground provision from the rules, there are many ripple effects that must be considered, which are best examined by using the same play with some slight changes to assess the impact. Assuming that we have two feet and a catch, 

If the receiver is forcibly hit in the head or neck area, he is unable to avoid that contact, and is thus rendered a defenseless player. Previously, the end of the catch process also had the same endpoint of defenseless receiver protections. This will not necessarily be the case in some situations, and so a note is added to provide for the receiver to be “capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent” and protected from hits to the head. While we can still mentally save the old catch rule to discern when to apply the defenseless player rule, it creates a nebulous interpretation for both the official and the defender.

If a catch is made similar to the Johnson play, but with two feet down at the 50-yard line, this would be a fumble. If this is a catch with two feet down at the 5, landing at the 2, this is also a fumble. If said fumble goes out of bounds in the end zone, care to guess what happens next?

This would be ruled a touchback, when it would be an incomplete pass in 2017.

Referencing back to the 1953 rule above, the catch possession rules are the same as possession of any loose ball in today’s rules as well. This means that fumble recoveries and possession of all kicks would also be affected by the proposed rule change; alternately, those rules might remain the same as they are now, but doing so would add an additional layer of inconsistency. Because the verbiage of the rulebook changes to accommodate cascading effects by the voted changes, a decision would have to be made on loose-ball recoveries, but it would not necessarily be subject to a vote by the owners. As proposed, loose-ball recoveries are not yet addressed.

This has a potential to have inconsistent enforcement, increasing the number of disputable catches to much more than one or two a year. The Jesse James play was arguably the most disputed call of the 2017 season and had a direct impact on breaking the tie for the number 1 seed in the AFC. Will there be a ground-catch dispute of similar magnitude in 2018?

I am certain that the Competition Committee — and now the Officiating Department, which is tasked with laying out interpretive guidelines — has done their due diligence and thought out all of these scenarios. This offseason, they have had some help in that department. For the first time this year, the committee had the benefit of an independently contracted officiating consultant: one Ed Hochuli, perhaps channeling David Letterman and sporting a month-old retirement beard.

Cam Filipe contributed to this report.

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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