The New, “Simpler” NFL Catch Rule Requires Refs to Be On-Field Philosophers

GREEN BAY, WI - JANUARY 11:  Dez Bryant #88 of the Dallas Cowboys attempts a catch over Sam Shields #37 of the Green Bay Packers during the 2015 NFC Divisional Playoff game at Lambeau Field on January 11, 2015 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Initially ruled a catch, the call was reversed upon review.  (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
In accordance with the rules, the refs reversed Dez Bryant’s touchdown catch against the Packers in 2015. The NFL now says Dez caught it. So … did he catch it? Consult your local philosopher.
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Next week, the NFL will add a new chapter to its decades-long struggle with itself over what constitutes a catch. The league’s competition committee plans to recommend a new definition at the NFL’s annual meetings, a change that comes at the behest of commissioner Roger Goodell after a season full of baffling replay reversals.

On Wednesday, NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron tweeted out a PowerPoint slide outlining the committee’s proposal:

Indeed, nothing says “simplify” like a multi-section definition supplemented with a three-part addendum, the last part of which—the bullet point that references one’s “ability to perform” a “football move”—requires officials to ponder the nature of free will and how it presents itself in the physical form of man.

Riveron did not mention video review, but ESPN reports “the NFL is expected to strengthen its standard for reversing calls from ‘clear and obvious’ to a phrase similar to ‘indisputable visual evidence.’ ” No one mixes complex lexical semantics with grievous bodily harm quite like the NFL, and it’s hard to predict how this new phrasing will manifest itself during in-game situations. It’s a shame William Safire is no longer around, as his insight would be invaluable here.

The new catch rule, which will be presented to team owners for approval, is said to eliminate the notorious “player going to the ground” subsection of the previous comically complicated rule. That language—rule 8, section 1, article 3, item 1—reads thusly:

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.

While that is certainly a mouthful, this new, more concise rule won’t solve any of the old rule’s problems. Indeed, if the competition committee gets its way next week, one of the game’s most elemental aspects will get saddled with questions of intent that are complex enough to stump a Supreme Court clerk.

On Twitter, Riveron highlighted two noteworthy recent plays—Dez Bryant’s would-be playoff game-winner for the Cowboys against the Packers in 2015 and last season’s touchdown by the Steelers’ Jesse James against the Patriots that was reversed after video review—as examples of completed passes under the new rule.

There’s nothing in the “simplified” new rule, though, that makes it unambiguous that those two catches should be catches. It’s entirely subjective if a player makes a “football move” or whether he “has the ability to perform such an act.” If the NFL truly wants a rule that mandates that the Bryant and James catches are catches, the league will have to start from scratch. Otherwise, we’ll just keep traveling further down a linguistic wormhole.

Recall that in Super Bowl LII, the Eagles had two touchdown catches that, given the rule as of last season, could potentially have been reversed and deemed non-catches. In one instance, running back Corey Clement caught a pass in the back of the end zone and the ball shifted in his hands as he went to the ground. In the other, tight end Zach Ertz lunged for a touchdown, and the ball jostled free when it hit the turf.

In the moment, NBC’s announcing crew thought the plays would in fact be reversed. “If I had to guess, I’d say it’s gonna get overturned,” Al Michaels said of Ertz’s catch.

“Now, the question was, was he a runner? ” Cris Collinsworth asked. “Was he going to the ground in the process of the catch?”

When both calls weren’t overturned, neither announcer objected. That’s because they know what a catch looks like, even if they might not be able to write down a definition that would cover every eventuality.

There is at least one solution to this conundrum that doesn’t involve slathering an overlong rulebook with even more legalese. The National Intramural Recreational Sports Association has its own catch rule, one that ends on the following note: “If in doubt, it is a catch.”

Had the NFL abided by that rule, the Bryant and James catches would have stood. Their “ability to perform such an act” as a “football move” wouldn’t have had anything to do with it.