So what exactly is a catch? How is anyone really able to make any sense of the NFL catch rule?
This is a question that plagues many NFL fans, columnists, commentators, players, and dare I say it, even officials. Catches have been the subject of some fierce debate, especially over the past few years, and the NFL seems set to again refine the rule having appointed a six person committee to examine it.
Currently, for a catch to be complete the player must:
- control the ball in their hands or arms before it touches the ground, and;
- touch both feet, or any other part of their body other than their hands inbounds, and;
- maintain control of the ball and become a runner, or;
- if the player is going to ground in the act of catching, maintain possession after going to ground.
The requirement that the player becomes a runner was new to the 2015 season and was arguably the result of the controversy surrounding Dez Bryant’s non-catch late in the NFC divisional round playoff back in January. Becoming a runner is defined as having the ability to fend off or protect oneself from impending contact, and this replaced the previous definition of being able to complete a ‘football move’. Many have argued that Bryant did complete a football move by reaching forward toward end zone, which suggests that the NFL’s 2015 reinterpretation was aimed at reinforcing the ruling that Bryant did not catch the ball.
However, it seems that this new definition has only created more controversy with several decisions being called into question, even after being reviewed, throughout the 2015 season.
One of the most cited of these is Golden Tate’s touchdown in Week 6 which on review was ruled as complete. While Fox Sport’s commentator was convinced that it should not have been a touchdown because Tate was going to ground and lost possession, others (including the officials I’d assume) have suggested that Tate was not going to ground and consequently became a runner – hence, touchdown.
— NFL (@NFL) October 18, 2015
Next was Odell Beckham Jr.’s catch in Week 10 when the Gaints came oh so close to knocking over the Patriots. This would have been a game winning touchdown but Malcolm Butler swiped the ball out of Beckham’s hands. On review it was ruled that Beckham did not become a runner because the second foot had only just touched the ground when the ball was knocked out and hence it was ruled as incomplete.
Both of these examples illustrate the subjective line operating within the current catch rule. It could be argued that had either review gone the opposite way, just as much discussion and debate would exist. But much of this debate can be placed on the shoulders of high-definition video replays. We are now able to see in extra slow motion whether a player was a millimetre out of bounds or if their second foot scratched the ground. But determining whether a player was a runner or not is a much more difficult feat and not necessarily something the television cameras can pick up.
This has led some, such as former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, to suggest a simplification of the rule is in order. Cowher has suggested that the definition should be, (1) clear possession of the ball and, (2) two feet, or any other body part other than the hands, touching the ground – that’s it. This would certainly remove much of the subjectivity around catches. But it would also result in an increase in touchdowns as more endzone passes are ruled as complete, and also an increase in fumbles and hence turnovers. It’s effects such as these that the NFL’s committee will be examining over the off-season and they’ll be balancing up simplification of the rule verses any potential effect on the game.
However, given that last year’s rule change seemed to reinforce the NFL’s wish for players to have more than two feet on the ground in order for a catch to be ruled as complete, it seems more likely that the result will be a slight change in the definition of a catch rather than any sort simplification. With this thought in mind, it’s highly likely that debates over end zone catches late in the 4th quarter will continue for many years to come.