NFL catch rule won't change, but is that a good thing?
March 3, 2016 2:10 PM
Rob Carr/Getty Images
The Cowboys' Dez Bryant waits for a replay on a call of a disputed catch late in the fourth quarter during a playoff game against Green Bay in January 2015.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The NFL has tried to clarify its catch rule in recent years. It has amended the language in the rulebook. It has reinforced the rule with coaches and players to help them better understand it. It even formed a committee to study the issue.
All, to little or no avail.
One of the most memorable quotes of the 2015 season was uttered by frustrated Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy after a playoff game against Arizona in January.
“I don’t know what the hell a catch is anymore,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”
That sentence, or some variation of it, has been uttered by similarly stumped fans on an almost weekly basis the past few seasons. The NFL has a rule that makes the game confusing for its participants, game officials and fans alike.
“The rule has everyone confused,” said one former NFL official who declined to be named. “It’s the hardest thing to distinguish, the catch or no catch. All of these things that have been added on have made it more difficult to officiate.”
And apparently, it’s going to stay that way in 2016. Word came via a story on NFL.com last week that the rule is unlikely to be changed after the committee commissioner Roger Goodell formed in December met at the combine in Indianapolis and decided to keep the status quo.
“Nothing has been finalized, but my sense is that there will be no change to the rule or tweak of the language,” NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino told NFL.com.
After several more controversial rulings during the 2015 season, including one in the Super Bowl, there had been momentum for the rule to be amended again. Sources in the league’s officiating circle were hopeful the rule would be simplified.
“In my opinion, the game is so difficult to officiate because they’ve made it too difficult to officiate,” said Jim Daopoulos, a former NFL supervisor of officials who also spent 11 years as an on-field official and is now a rules analyst for ESPN. “Now, by adding all this language to the rulebook, they’ve made the game so difficult to officiate because they’re trying to micromanage it in New York.”
For years, the rule was much simpler than it is now. The original rule, which first appeared in the rulebook in 1938, stated the receiver had to possess the ball and “perform an act common to the game.” It remained unchanged for more than four decades.
The NFL’s slippery slope on the catch rule began in 1982 when the rule was rewritten for the first time to state the receiver must possess the ball “to the ground.”
In recent years, the league has rewritten clarifications to the rule in an attempt to make it easier for officials to judge plays. There is the oft-cited language by referees of the receiver having to “complete the process of a catch” or the receiver “making a football move” or most recently, the receiver “must clearly become a runner, which is defined as the ability to ward off or protect himself from impending contact.”
But it has only made it worse.
Another former NFL referee had a suggestion that would solve some but not all of the league’s disputed catches. Just as the ground cannot cause a fumble, this retired official would like to see the same concept applied to catches.
“I think they can make the rule better if they can decide when it’s visibly evident that it’s a catch — that he completed the catch with two feet down — then it’s a catch,” the retired referee said. “We can eliminate a lot of these plays when the receiver goes to the ground by saying, ‘When he hits the ground and the ball comes out, then he’s down by contact.’ It can still be a catch and there would not be a fumble.
“We don’t even have to go into all of these nuances of what a completed catch is. When the receiver goes to the ground, the play should be over. Now, if he catches it, goes to the ground, rolls over and loses it, it’s not a catch. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
That would take care of some of the more controversial rulings, such as the Calvin Johnson touchdown that was disallowed in 2010, but there would still be disputed catches when players stay upright.
Another problem is modern technology, specifically high-definition television and its use in replay reviews by Blandino. Before last season, replay reviews were handled in stadiums by referees with consultation from on-site replay officials. Now Blandino handles all reviews from New York.
“Does the ball move sometimes?” Yes,” Daopoulos said. “But you can do whatever you want in New York to make it a catch or not make it a catch by slowing it down or not slowing it down. With high-definition TV now, you can slow it down so much that you’re going to see the slightest bobble. Now they’re looking to see if the laces move. We’ve become so technical.
“We’ve made it too difficult on the officials. I would try to make it as simple as possible. Don’t micromanage the catches. I used to teach the guys that these players can make these catches. This is what they do. Don’t micromanage the game with bobbles and all this stuff. Let the players decide the game on the field. We have to quit going to replay so much. We can’t let it be determined by a TV shot.”
Ultimately, any changes will be up to the owners, who will meet later this month at their annual owners meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., but any momentum for a change seems to have died in Indianapolis.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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