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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Rule change will help clarify what is an NFL catch

Steelers tight end Jesse James has a knee

Steelers tight end Jesse James has a knee down before crossing the goal line against the Patriots on Dec. 17, 2017. Credit: AP / Don Wright

It is the simplest of questions with one of the most complicated answers — if there is an answer at all.

What is a catch?

NFL players, coaches, team owners and fans have debated the issue for years, and there has yet to be a satisfactory explanation of what constitutes a catch.

Until now.



After commissioner Roger Goodell recently challenged the league’s competition committee to come up with a better solution to the catch rule, the owners appear ready to pass a measure that could go a long way toward eliminating all the confusion and controversy over the matter.

“We tried to simplify the rule with a three-step process,” competition committee chairman Rich McKay said during a conference call on Friday.

The process goes like this: First, a player must establish possession. Then he must get either two feet or a body part (knee, elbow, shoulder, backside, etc.) down and then perform a football act (dive, lunge) or take a third step.

What’s missing from the new rule proposal: surviving the ground. That’s where so much controversy erupted on a handful of key plays over the years.

*** There was the Calvin Johnson touchdown in 2010 that was called back because he dropped the ball after he went to the ground.

*** The Dez Bryant play in the 2014 playoffs, when a catch was taken away after he made a leaping grab and the ball hit the ground after he took two steps.

*** Last year, Steelers tight end Jesse James had a touchdown taken back after officials ruled that he lost possession after catching a pass and taking two steps before the ball hit the ground as he attempted to hold it over the goal line.

It’s too late now, but those plays now would be considered catches if at least 24 owners decide to pass the rules proposal during their annual spring meetings Sunday through Wednesday in Florida.

“We got rid of ‘going to the ground,’ which was definitely causing some issues on these calls,” McKay said.

It’s a huge step in the right direction and will go a long way toward eliminating some of the ticky-tack calls that officials often make on plays that are spectacularly executed. With today’s receivers making so many dynamic plays, the fact that they won’t be subject to unnecessary rules that penalize their athleticism will make the game that much better.

Will the recalibration of the catch rule eliminate controversy entirely? Probably not. After all, when you have a game played by humans and officiated by humans, even the use of replay can’t correct all the bad calls. But by eliminating the “surviving the ground” requirement for catches, the league will have closed an important loophole that ultimately will improve the quality of the game.

And there’s one more element that will help. While there won’t be anything codified in the rule book regarding how instant replay is enforced, there will be an important change to the system moving forward. After several calls were overturned last season, including two would-be touchdown catches by Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, both of which were overturned by replay, director of officiating Al Riveron will take a different approach from now on.

Riveron, who was criticized for many of those reversals in his first year on the job after replacing Dean Blandino, won’t overturn plays unless there is convincing replay evidence that there should be a change. Riveron too often changed calls in which there was only microscopic evidence — and not clear and convincing evidence — that a reversal was warranted.

That’s an important distinction, especially when it comes to whether a player makes a catch or doesn’t, and it will establish a greater sense of fairness.

What is a catch?

It looks as if the league finally has figured it out.


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