Fixing the NFL catch rule: No more 'surviving the ground'


Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Super Bowl LII was arguably the most thoroughly exciting in the history of the title game. The Eagles and Patriots combined for more yards than any game in the history of the NFL, regular or postseason, and Super Bowl LII missed tying the record for the most combined points in a Super Bowl by one point.

Yet even a championship game that was nearly ideal for the NFL to close out a contentious season contained a reminder of one of the lingering issues that has troubled the league for years: the NFL’s inability to pin down a definition of a catch that can be enforced consistently.

The deciding score in Super Bowl LII, an 11-yard catch and run by Zach Ertz, evoked the most controversial officiating ruling of the season: Jesse James’ overturned touchdown catch in the final minute of the Week 15 game between the Patriots and the Steelers, a result that ultimately decided home field advantage in the AFC. 

Ertz’s touchdown was upheld after review while James’ was not even though they were remarkable similar plays in which the receiver lost control of the ball going to the ground in the end zone. 

James’ catch was hardly the only instance in which the catch rule was an issue before the Super Bowl this past season, and Ertz’s catch wasn’t the only Philadelphia touchdown in the Super Bowl that some called into question. That alone should illustrate the ever-growing need for clarity.

Time was, the NFL could blame individual referees or crews for inconsistent enforcement, but nowadays all replay is centralized in NFL headquarters. With no scapegoat to identify, the NFL has no choice but to admit the onus is on the league itself to resolve the problem, lest referee Al Riveron become the sworn enemy of every fan base once it’s their team’s turn to be the victim of a confounding situation.

In the week before the Super Bowl, commissioner Roger Goodell stressed the importance of fixing the catch rule. Addressing what constitutes a catch is by no means new business for the NFL. Just two years ago, the competition committee declined to overhaul the rule. Instead, the language of it was tweaked in a half-hearted attempt to sweep the issue aside. Unsurprisingly, a rephrased version of a rule that presently spans 649 words and three subsections didn’t exactly simplify matters

By his remarks at the press conference, Goodell seemed to prefer the next iteration of the catch rule to be a stripped-down one.

"I would like to start back, instead of adding to the rule, subtracting the rule,” Goodell said. “Start over again and look at the rule fundamentally from the start. Because I think when you add or subtract things you can still lead to confusion. These rules are very complex; you have to look at what the unintended consequences are of making a change, which is what the competition committee, in my view, does so well and with so much thought. Clearly, the catch/no catch has had a lot of discussion. I won't tell you there won't be controversy (in the future), but we need to get to a better place."

Before that 2016 change, the second year in a row the NFL tweaked the language of the rule, the competition committee denied the need for an overhauled version. That won’t be an option now. Perhaps it won’t be a wholesale change, but there will have to be dramatic alterations to what governs a catch in the NFL. Two years ago, league officials refused to consider getting rid of the "Calvin Johnson Rule," which has been a flashpoint since 2010, when the then-Lions receiver had a game-winning touchdown called back because, as referees would now say, he “didn’t survive the ground” after making a catch.

That standard tends to be at the heart of the most maddening catch replays. It’s frustrating to fans that the ground can’t cause a fumble but it can cause an incompletion after a receiver has control of the ball. It’s counterintuitive to see a receiver have the ball firmly in hand only for a reception to be negated when it comes in contact with the ground. In the case of James, it caused an incompletion after he already broke the goal line with the ball in his possession.

In general, the NFL should strive to relax the standards of a catch. It may be fine to rule an incompletion when a receiver goes into full extension to make a diving catch only to lose it when he contacts the ground, but having control of the ball and two feet down should result in a catch even if the ground jars it loose after further movement.

Completion percentage may be higher than it’s ever been, but that’s only because teams have been incentivized to favor short, quick passes that are great for completions but don’t always net tons of yards. That’s just one of several factors that hurts the product on the field. Casual fans want to see teams be more aggressive with their downfield passing. They don’t want to nitpick how each particular play adheres to byzantine rules. 

Making a catch rule with less complexity than a rocket launch is one way to create a more conducive atmosphere for that.

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Mike Tunison is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va. and the former editor of Kissing Suzy Kolber. You can follow him at @xmasape on Twitter.

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