Gene Collier: NFL is in possession of puzzling receiver rule

Some have asked if I think the Steelers turned a corner Sunday with a stirring come-from-behind-after-coming-from-ahead victory against the NFC Central Division-leading Detroit Lions, but it’s increasingly apparent that I’d be the last to know.

A week earlier, I was the last to suspect the Steelers’ porous run defense would crush Buffalo’s highly competent rushers, and by halftime against the Lions, I was among the last to understand that despite scoring 27 points in the second quarter, Detroit was not necessarily on its way to winning 71-20.

Generally then, the more I see of the 2013 Steelers, the less I understand about their immediate future, but there’s a larger problem at hand. I’m no longer able to make basic assumptions regarding what goes on across the NFL, even on matters such as what constitutes a touchdown pass.

That’s why I found myself asking Jerricho Cotchery, Heath Miller, Mike Tomlin and even rookie wideout Markus Wheaton if they could help me connect mentally to certain contemporary football realities.

“It depends on what side of the ball you’re talking about,” said Cotchery, who has caught seven touchdown passes this fall and thus could presumably define one for me.

I was talking about why it is that in the middle of that second quarter Sunday, on a second-and-10 play from the Detroit 12, Ben Roethlisberger fired a pass into the end zone on which Miller made a leaping, twisting, two-handed grab for a touchdown.

Except he didn’t.

After Miller crashed to the wet grass, the ball squished away from him. The ground, which as we all know cannot cause a fumble, had caused an incomplete pass. Why does the ground hate pass catchers? Apparently possessing the ball in the end zone and putting both feet somewhere in it does not a touchdown make.

“From my standpoint, I feel like if you catch the rock, you put both feet down, BOOM, it’s too late [for the defense],” said Cotchery, who has been dealing with the NFL’s version of reality for 10 years. “You should have been in position to make the play [as a defensive player]. But from their standpoint, they want to be out of position and still have the opportunity to make up for their mistakes.

“That’s how I look at it.”

That’s an interesting perspective, especially in a league that never stops bending the rules to benefit quarterbacks and receivers. Why would an entertainment entity like the NFL exult in the abilities of Detroit’s Calvin “Megatron” Johnson, only to enforce what’s become known as “The Calvin Johnson rule,” which demands that receivers control the ball through the play even after contact with the ground?

A running back with the football need only break an imaginary plane extending vertically from the goal line to be credited with a touchdown — he need not even enter the end zone — but a receiver already in the end zone has to catch it, possess it, withstand a subsequent fall to earth and still maintain possession as he rolls out of the end zone.

If I were a receiver, I’d never consciously give the ball up. I’d run all the way around to the back of the bench with it. I’d take it into the game on the next series. It could really come in handy.

Why not a rule like this for end zone receivers?

You’ve got to catch it, possess it, make sure it doesn’t move a millimeter while you fall out of the end zone, then you’ve got to get up, run back to the bench and put it in a box. The box should be shaped like a little house. Then it could be definitively said, “He took it to the house.”

If you drop the ball at any point in that process, even while taking it to the house, it’s not a touchdown.

Where does this madness stop?

I asked Wheaton how this could be fair, that receivers have to maintain possession throughout the play, while running backs need only nick some imaginary plane with the thing before fainting and letting it roll through the end zone.

“I think it’s fair,” he said. “A running back has possession of the ball. A receiver is trying to get possession. There’s a difference. For me, I’m just going to try and hold onto it as long as I can.”

Wheaton said he wasn’t sure of the rule in college, but once you get to the NFL, all receivers learn it instantly.

Tomlin, who is on the league’s Competition Committee, with its long history of rule twisting, knows it inside and out, and confirmed Wheaton’s explanation.

“One guy [a running back] has possession of the ball and one guy [a receiver] is working to gain possession of the ball, and therein lies the distinction,” said the coach. “When you’re trying to gain possession, it has to be definitive, so [the receiver] has to maintain possession throughout the catch, even after contact with the ground, if there’s no football move. Had Heath made some kind of football move after the catch, and someone knocked it out, it’s a touchdown.”

In other words, had Miller made the catch, managed to keep his feet and moved to avoid a collision, for example, nothing that happened thereafter would have prevented a touchdown.

The problem with this logic is that falling to the ground is not only a football move, it’s the main football move!. A dozen or more people do it on every play.

I asked Miller why his catch wasn’t a touchdown, as if he didn’t know.

“You’ve got to maintain possession,” said the tight end. “It’s the Calvin Johnson rule.”

I know. It’s stupid.

“Hey,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got bigger problems with rules than that.”

Yeah? Don’t tell me them.

Gene Collier:

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