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The NFL Rule Book: Call that a catch?

One play in Green Bay last January has reignited one of the most perplexing and infuriating rhetorics in the NFL; what the hell, is a catch? I am, of course, talking about the infamous Dez Bryant ‘no catch’ decision against the Packers in last year’s NFC Divisional round. As you can see in this video, Bryant caught the ball, was contacted by Shields, took 3 steps, his forearm touched the ground and he reached for the goal line, yet upon contact with the floor the ball jarred briefly out of his hands. It was ruled a catch on the field, but subsequently overturned and the world went mad, calling for a change to the rule. However, Cowboys’ fans weren’t the first, and won’t be the last, to effectively lose a game due to this rule. In 2010 in the season opener between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, Calvin Johnson seemingly caught the game-winning touchdown in the dying seconds of the game. However, upon review, it was concluded that Johnson did not complete the process of a catch going to the ground. Much like Bryant’s, Johnson got both feet in bounds and had secure possession of the ball but lost control of the ball when it hit the ground. Thus, the pass is incomplete. 

In both Johnson’s and Bryant’s plays, one thing is ignored. Common sense. In both plays anybody would say that the players caught the ball, plain and simple. They had secure possession of the ball and they had it for several steps. However, in both cases, the correct call was made according to the rule. Which begs the question; if a rule is correctly enforced, but the result is in complete contradiction to common sense, should that rule be changed?

Rule 8-1-3 reads:

A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds: a. secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and b. touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and c. maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has clearly become a runner (see 3-2-7 Item 2).

Rule 3-2-7 reads:

A player becomes a runner when he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent.

Now, in both of these cases, Bryant and Johnson both seem to meet these criteria, but, the rule changes when the player is going to ground. It reads

“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.”

Following Bryant’s play this rule came under fire again. So, naturally, this rule is at the forefront of fans’ minds when watching football this season, and there certainly hasn’t been a shortage of talking points.


In week 5, the first big debate came from a catch/no catch made by Devonta Freeman against the Redskins. As the video shows, he catches the ball, takes two steps and dives for the end zone whilst stretching the ball out. He gets in the end zone but upon landing loses the ball. It was ruled a touchdown on the field, but the ruling was reversed after review.   Now, according to the rule, that was the right call. As he was going to ground, for it to be a completed catch he would have had to maintain possession or at least regain possession before the ball hit the ground, which he didn’t.   But unfortunately, that ruling just doesn’t make sense. Outside of the NFL definition of a catch, Freeman caught the ball, clearly. Even within the rules, you could argue he did establish himself as a runner as he landed, took 2 steps and dove for the end zone holding the ball out. If that doesn’t make him a runner I don’t know what does.

In Week 6, a Golden Tate catch was the subject of scrutiny. Tate clearly catches the ball and has instantaneous possession, but, as he is taking his second and third step, he is contacted and brought down to the ground, and in doing so the ball came loose and was seemingly intercepted. And that is how it was ruled on the field. Then, during the review, both Mike Pereira – Fox Sports rules expert – and the commentators, feel that the call on the field should be upheld. However, the ruling on the field was overturned, handing the Lions a touchdown, leaving Mike Pereira thinking “Well Maybe I need more clarification, that’s for sure” in regards to the rule.

The first thing that springs to mind with this play is what makes it different from Freeman’s? Tate caught the ball, was contacted instantly and starting to go to the ground, the ball came loose and it was intercepted. Freeman’s was ruled incomplete as he lost possession going to the ground. Surely then, given that Freeman’s was ruled incomplete, logic would dictate that this should be ruled in the same way, resulting in an interception. Evidently, the league office disagrees, Dean Blandino offered up this explanation for why Tate’s was ruled a touchdown, “When you watch the play the ball comes loose, he is taking his third step, the third step is almost on the ground when the ball comes out. He had demonstrated possession, had become a runner, once the ball breaks the plane of the goal line in possession of a runner it is a touchdown and the play is over at that point.” I’m not so convinced. Tate had the ball no longer than Freeman, Bryant or Johnson, and – if anything – seemed to be less established as runner than any of the others.

Then came Week 10. There were 2 big plays that came down to this rule, and both ultimately led to points, or a lack of points for the teams involved.

The first came in the Super Bowl XLVI rematch between the Giants and the Patriots. With just 2 minutes left, on 1st and goal, Odell Beckham Jr. caught a back shoulder pass and landed in the end zone and getting both feet down as he turned towards the fans. As he was doing this, Malcolm Butler reached round and knocked the ball out of Beckham’s hands. A touchdown was signalled by the referee, but it was changed to an incompletion following an official review. The Giants failed to get a touchdown, and gave the Patriots more time to score a field goal to win.   Unlike the other, this call was a lot more borderline in my eyes but I ultimately think it should’ve been ruled a catch. Because unlike the others, Beckham was not going to ground. This means he just had to have possession of the ball and get 2 feet in bounds. Again though, according to the rule, overturning the ruling was the right call as Beckham’s second foot was touching almost simultaneously to the ball being knocked out, making it an incomplete pass. Although, he had the ball for about as long as Tate did, with both feet in the end zone, so it again begs the question why one was given and not another? Especially as it was determined that Tate was not described as going to the ground.

The other drama of Week 10 came in Seattle, in the NFC West clash between the Seahawks and Cardinals. With 24 seconds left in the 1st half and the Cardinals at mid-field looking to add points before halftime, Darren Fells caught a pass, took 3 steps and started to turn up field. At that point Bobby Wagner knocked the ball out and Earl Thomas recovered it. However it was ruled incomplete. Upon review, they upheld the call. The Cardinals then added a field goal to widen the gap before the half.

I think they definitely got this one wrong. The way they deemed Golden Tate a runner happened in this play too, he took 3 steps. Admittedly, in real time this seemed like a bang-bang play and Fells had little time to properly establish as a runner, but the fact remains that he took 3 steps, had control of the ball and was starting to turn up field. To me, that sounds like he was a runner at that point. So the fact his ‘catch’ was deemed incomplete by the rules, why wasn’t Tate’s?

At this point you may be thinking that there is nothing wrong with the rule because none of these calls have been wrong, technically speaking, but the rule is written is such a way that it becomes subjective. With that said, is there really any way to avoid that?

In all these cases, even someone who knew nothing about the rule would think that in every case the player involved caught the ball, at least initially. So shouldn’t that be enough? Can’t the referees just use common sense when determining if someone caught the ball? It is such a simple act, such a regular occurrence that everyone knows what a catch is and it is very easy to tell if someone caught the ball.

Having said that, if it was based on common sense, it is still somewhat subjective. Furthermore, in a competitive situation like football, there does need to be criteria to determine a proper ruling, and that puts the NFL in a very awkward situation. The current criteria does make sense, it works. But the fact that every time this rule comes into focus, it leaves everyone confused, disappointed and angry. Why can’t the NFL decide what a catch is and have it consistently called this way?

One solution to this could be taking unclear and subjective language like “clearly become a runner” out of the verbiage of the rule. What is a runner? The explanation in the rules seems clear enough, but in real time, in-game, how can you clearly and definitively differentiate between what made Tate a runner and what made Fells or Freeman a runner? You can’t.

One way around this lack of clarity is to give “becoming a runner” clear criteria, such as; taking 3 steps, clearly bracing for contact or making an obvious move to avoid contact. They could also classify reaching the ball out for extra yards or the goal line as becoming a runner, this would be my choice. Another way around this, would be to make every catch situation the same, or at least more similar. For example, if a player lands with possession and takes two steps but then upon hitting the ground, loses the ball, then a catch and fumble should be ruled. Or, if a player catches the ball, but goes to ground without taking the two steps and loses the ball, then it should be incomplete.

Applying these changes to the prior situations would have a significant effect. Calvin Johnson’s would become a completed pass as he landed with both feet and his knee touched before he lost the ball. Dez Bryant’s would become a completed pass and then down by contact, as he was contacted on the way to the ground, having taken 3 steps and his forearm touching, before the ground caused the fumble. Devonta Freeman’s would also have a different outcome, it would be a touchdown as he would’ve clearly established himself as a runner. Dean Blandino’s explanation for why Golden Tate’s was a catch would now be clearer and make sense. Odell Beckham Jr.’s would be a catch as he got both feet down and was turning as the ball came out and Darren Fell’s would become a catch and then fumble recovered by the Seahawks as had taken 3 steps and was turning up-field when the ball was knocked out. So, not only would these plays now make sense, they would’ve been a lot easier to call.

All in all, the referees actually do a good job, they get most of the calls right, but with the rule as it is, if the NFL does not change the rule, or at least tweak it, plays like these will continue to dominate the headlines and referees will continue to be under immense pressure in these situations. And maybe most importantly, players, fans, commentators and possibly even some specialists won’t know what actually constitutes a catch in various situations.

Remy Cabache

Lifetime sports fan. I have written with RealSport since the NFL section started and I have also written for my own blog, EbonyBird.com and I have had several articles published in local newspapers covering my local (American) football team.

The NFL Rule Book: Call that a catch?

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