Arguably the most controversial part of the NFL's on-field product over the last few years is the catch rule. From the Calvin Johnson catch to the Dez Bryant catch to the Jesse James catch just last year, multiple would-be touchdowns were overturned because of the rule book – a rule book that states that a player needs to maintain possession of the football whilst going to the ground.
The definition leaves some room for subjective interpretation and thus has caused plenty of confusion and anger over the years. Because of all the negative backlash, the NFL is now trying to simplify the catch rule to make it more transparent and less convoluted. Al Riveron, the league's vice president of officiating, revealed a proposal from the competition committee yesterday that will be voted on during league meetings next week.
The proposal defines a catch as follows:
1. Control of the ball.
2. Two feet down or another body part.
3. A football move such as:
– A third step;
– Reaching/extending for the line-to-gain;
– Or the ability to perform such an act.
Points one and two of the proposal are the same as they are under the current rules (although using a little different wording). The major difference to the rules as they were enforced until the 2017 season is the potential introduction of “a football move” into the rule book. The current rules do not use the terminology “football move” but instead define a catch via maintaining control of the football.
Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3c – the catch rule's most controversial item and the one the competition committee is looking to change – is currently worded as follows (“A forward pass is complete if a player, who is inbounds...”):
(c) maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has the ball long enough to clearly become a runner. A player has the ball long enough to become a runner when, after his second foot is on the ground, he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up field, or taking additional steps.
The rule book then features six items further explaining what is meant by Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3c in regards to a) a player going to the ground, b) sideline catches, c) end zone catches, d) the football touching the ground, e) simultaneous catches, and f) a player being carried out of bounds. Those six items would be most impacted by simplifying the current set of rules.
That being said, there is still room for subjective interpretation of what actually is a catch. While “a third step” is relatively clear-cut, both “reaching/extending for the line-to-gain” and an “ability to perform such an act” potentially attract scrutiny – at least until clearly defined what is meant by them and how they will ultimately be enforced (which again would take away some of the intended simplification).
It therefore seems questionable that a rule change will actually lead to a noticeable decrease in the number of controversial catch-related moments. However, a play like the one that happened during the New England Patriots' game against the Pittsburgh Steelers will apparently no longer go in the defense's favor, according to NFL executive vice president of football operation and man who has no clue about simple laws of physics Troy Vincent.
“Slight movement of the ball, it looks like we’ll reverse that,” Vincent told the Washington Post. The above-mentioned game between New England and Pittsburgh featured such a moment when Steelers tight end Jesse James extended to cross the goal line but by doing so failed to maintain possession and complete the catch. “Going to the ground, it looks like that’s going to be eliminated,” Vincent continued, “and we’ll go back to the old replay standard of reverse the call on the field only when it’s indisputable.”
Will this eliminate controversy? That's the million-dollar question and one that will not be answered until the new ruling – unless it fails to get approval of at least 24 of the NFL's 32 teams – is implemented.