Whose Catch Is It, Anyway?

Once again the NFL has updated it’s rules and regulations for the 2017 season. The biggest one that they focused on was penalizing end zone celebrations more. Taunting has already been established as a big no-no, and pretty much any celebration where a player touches the opposing team’s player is an automatic flag. Originally it seemed that almost any touchdown celebration was going to become a penalty, but the major rule change was that no celebrations can be “sexual”. It can probably go down as the unofficial Antonio Brown rule. Of course there were slight changes to what possession is, which seems to contradict every single year. Week 6 gave us the worst example of this complaint, and it has been lingering for years around the NFL. What in the hell exactly is a catch?

A good place to start is to reference what the official NFL rule book has listed as a catch. The explanation goes as follows:

A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:

  1. secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
  2. touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
  3. 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 (see 3-2-7-Item 2).

Note: If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered a loss of possession. He must lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession.

If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body to the ground, it is not a catch.

The first two parts make sense. As long as someone behind the line of scrimmage (assuming the QB) throws a ball forward and another eligible receiver secures the ball without dropping it on the ground. The second part being that both feet are in bounds. Easy enough to understand, we’re on the same page thus far. The third part though… that’s the gray area that none of the officiating crews can agree on. There were three particular games where part 3 of the catch rule was stretched to it’s breaking point.

The Green Bay vs. Minnesota game is receiving huge buzz because Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in the first quarter, but the bigger story that no one wants to cover is how messed up the calls were on particular catches. There were four instances that the play was either challenged or reviewed by the booth to determine what the call was, and each time the outcome had everyone extremely confused. At one point Thom Brennaman, Troy Aikman, and Mike Pereira all were scratching their heads on the disagreement from the official’s calls. It got to a point that Aikman was flat out mocking the NFL that nobody can establish was an actual catch is. Here is a play that was set up to explain how it was: Green Bay were on the goal line and it was third down. Brett Hundley snapped the ball and threw a forward pass to Ty Montgomery (part 1 of the rule) who was wide open. Ty Montgomery had both feet in bounds (part 2) and turned his body forward, fell down, was not touched, and then continued running towards the end zone. After the ball crossed the goal line it dropped out of his hands, and although initially called a touchdown, the ruling was overturned from the review. The question though, is what overturned it? According to part 3 of the rules Ty Montgomery he held the ball long enough to become an established runner, both feet were on the ground, he was capable of avoiding impeding contact, tucked the ball, and turned up field. The only time the ball hit the ground was already when the ball crossed the goal line, which has already been established is considered a touchdown. At one point was there an infraction to cause an over ruling towards the play? The Minnesota Vikings also were handed a slap in the face with a play where Adam Thielen caught a ball, and despite his hands remained in control of the ball the entire time, neither feet touched out of bounds. They actually didn’t touch the ground at all, and because of such turn of events they ruled it not a catch. Before the official call, Troy Aikman reminded the audience how the NFL discarded the “force-out” rule, in which a defender can’t push an eligible receiver out of bounds in air to make it a non-catch. Despite the friendly reminder, the officials called it a non-catch. Perhaps that particular officiating crew didn’t get the memo that force-outs aren’t a thing anymore.

Things looked much worse in New York this past week, which now has the infamous call at the end of the game. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the tight end for the Jets, caught the pass and as he was falling across the goal line, as he was hitting the pylon, the ball switched hands without touching the ground, and it was ruled a fumble. I repeat: THE BALL DID NOT TOUCH THE GROUND. Just like the Ty Montgomery situation, Austin Seferian-Jenkins caught the ball. He turned up field. Planted both feet. Tucked the ball for possession. Was aware of on-coming traffic. Everything that is in the rules to be a catch, and was ruled as such, but was called a fumble anyway? It should be said that being a sports reffing official is a very tough job, and these guys are trained for years to do what they do. There is always a margin of error as they are only human, but there hasn’t been that bad of a call since Galarraga was robbed of a perfect game. It’s almost as if the officials want the conspiracy theorists to add more traction for the New England Patriots still cheating.

What is the solution for determining what is a catch? We can’t blame the officials on not being able the agree on the rules, because the rules are vague. There’s too many “if’s” for a solution that should be clear cut and precise. Growing up the ’90’s every kid playing back yard football understood a “two-step rule”. If a receiver has the ball in his hands, is creating momentum downfield, and the ball is still in his hands after two steps, then it is a catch. The official NFL rules on a catch has the core, but with all the additions over the past ten years or so the confusion is clearly shown each and every week. What was so wrong with what we determined back in the ’70’s and ’80’s as catch? Granted, defensive rules have changed since then as well to make the offense have an upper-hand, but at least there wasn’t a dispute. As much as having booth reviews, numerous camera angles, and coach challenges enhance the game experience, the only negative consequence is it has refs second-guessing themselves on what catches truly are. The NFL can fix this by making it very simple: if a receiver has the ball in his hands, it does not touch the ground, and both feet are in bounds, then it is a catch. That’s it. End of discussion. No team can say it can be unfair, because it would be ruled that way on both sides. Not only would we eliminate the debate each year, but the game would be faster paced. It would destroy these horrible calls we witnessed this past week. It would create bigger and better highlights. With so many talented quarterbacks and wide receivers in the league right now, it is such a waste to downgrade their potential and momentum by having everyone question whether or not some plays are considered a catch.

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