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Changing the NFL Catch Rule Won’t End Controversial Calls

The league is set to re-work what it means for a receiver to “go to the ground,” but that doesn’t mean anyone should expect an end to questionable rulings

Jesse James’s grab was ruled incomplete. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly eight years after the Calvin Johnson non-catch, two and a half years after #DezCaughtIt, and three months after Jesse James’s non-catch against the Patriots, the NFL is finally doing it: per The Washington Post’s Mark Maske, the league is “poised to change” its rule over what constitutes a catch.

Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, described the proposed changes to Maske:“Slight movement of the ball, it looks like we’ll reverse that,” Vincent said. “Going to the ground, it looks like that’s going to be eliminated. And we’ll go back to the old replay standard of reverse the call on the field only when it’s indisputable.”

Vincent’s comments indicate that the NFL is looking to change the part of the catch rule that legislates what happens when a receiver is “going to the ground.” That rule (Article 3, Item 1) currently reads in part:

“A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.”

The problem has always been the ambiguous application of this rule. Had Bryant already established himself when making his (non-)catch? Or was he already “going to the ground” before he (may have) gained control? How about James?

Vincent specifically called out the Bryant and James plays to say that, under the new proposal—the specific wording of which has not been released—plays like those would be considered catches. If the proposal, which could be presented to the league’s owners next week, is accepted, it would represent the culmination of nearly a decade of controversy that began with the Johnson non-catch in 2010 and recently reached a fever pitch. In the past few seasons, “what is a catch?” has become an NFL meme of sorts. The rule has been applied so inconsistently that even NBC announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth didn’t attempt to explain whether Eagles tight end Zach Ertz’s go-ahead touchdown grab in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl was a catch or not.

“I’m not even taking a guess,” Collinsworth quipped. (Cris, that’s your job!)

The NFL hopes that a simplified rule would remove that kind of ambiguity, so that the final minutes of the Super Bowl aren’t spent on slow-motion replays narrated by befuddled broadcasters.

The problem, of course, is that the NFL’s catch controversy has never really been about the catch rule. Football is a messy game, and as much as the NFL tries to define that mess by standard rules and measurements, fitting the chaos of football into a binary of “catch” and “non-catch” is a fundamentally Sisyphean task.

Just look at this Odell Beckham Jr. non-catch in Week 10 of the 2015 season against the Patriots, which was originally ruled a touchdown on the field. His feet appear to be down and inbounds just before Malcolm Butler swats the ball away. With Vincent’s claim that the NFL will re-emphasize overturning only plays that are “indisputable,” does that mean this play would now be ruled a touchdown? Or what about this overturned touchdown by Kelvin Benjamin from last season? These plays happen almost every week.

Even with a rule change, the answers will never be clear. There isn’t even a Supreme Court-esque “you know it when you see it” type rule for the NFL to put in place—catches are just sloppy, complex plays that will always have a gray area.

It’s not like the NFL’s catch controversy began with Johnson in 2010. Though that play was the catalyst for the recent uproar, controversial calls are as old as football. Bert Emanuel had a catch overturned on a going-to-the-ground-type play in the 1999 NFC championship game. Mike Renfro’s controversial non-catch in the 1980 AFC championship game helped pave the way for the NFL to institute the replay system in 1986.

Obviously the NFL should do everything it can to make the rules clear and fair, and maybe these latest changes will help remove some of the uncertainty that has plagued the league for the past eight years. But controversial calls aren’t a football illness, they are football. No one can expect any new rules to change that.