NFL rule book doesn’t define “uncatchable”


We all now know (if we already didn’t) that pass interference isn’t pass interference when the pass is uncatchable.  But what more is there to know about what makes a pass uncatchable?

As it turns out, not much.

The official NFL rule book contains only one reference to the term “uncatchable.”  Rule 8, Section 5, Article 3(c) identifies as a permissible act “[c]ontact that would normally be considered pass interference, but the pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players.”

So, basically, the mugging of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski by Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly becomes permissible if the ball Gronkowski hoped to catch was “clearly uncatchable.”  But the rule book provides no further guidance or definition as to what is or isn’t uncatchable, “clearly” or otherwise.

In such situations, the league’s officiating casebook can often help fill the gaps.  In this situation, it doesn’t.

Here’s the only reference to the term “uncatchable” in the 106-page 2013 edition of the officiating casebook:

Third-and-4 on 50. Eligible receiver A2 runs to the B40, pushes off B2, and breaks to the sideline. The pass is thrown immediately to A2 but it is uncatchable and incomplete.  Ruling: Fourth-and-4 on 50. No penalty for pass interference, as the pass is uncatchable by the involved player.”

So what is “uncatchable”?  And what’s the difference between “uncatchable” and “clearly uncatchable”?  The league provides no specific definition or guidance to the officials.

This lack of elaboration underscores that it’s ultimately a judgment call, falling within the discretion given to the officials when making judgment calls.  Sometimes, discretion is exercised in a way that results in a finding that the ball was catchable (or, more accurately, not clearly uncatchable).  Sometimes, the finding is that the ball was uncatchable (or, more accurately, clearly uncatchable).

In this case, Gronkowski was running to the goalpost, stride for stride with Kuechly.  Safety Robert Lestar joins them briefly in the end zone from behind Gronkowski, but then Lester undercuts Gronkowski’s route as he continues to the post.

After Lester makes his move to the inside — while Gronkowski is still running to the post — Kuechly mugs Gronkowski and then Lestar makes the interception.

Could Gronkowski, but for the contact from Kuechly, have gotten around Kuechly and through Lester to catch the ball?

The decision ultimately made last night was no.  The opposite outcome, that the ball was catchable (or, more accurately, not clearly uncatchable) would have fallen within the discretion that gets applied in real time without the benefit of replay review.  It also would have been easier to defend it, especially if the Panthers had stopped the Patriots on first and goal from the one.

Either way, the officials are on their own to figure out what is and isn’t uncatchable.

73 responses to “NFL rule book doesn’t define “uncatchable”

  1. The biggest issue here and the fairest contention is that, in throwing the flag, the back judge in the moment decided that Gronkowski had a chance at the ball and Kuechly interfered with that.

    Considering they all saw it once at full speed, and that it is explicitly a judgment call, why was the back judge’s judgment ultimately substituted.

    If no flag was thrown whatsoever, that would’ve been perfectly fair.

    Picking up the flag on such a subjective judgment call is the problem here.

  2. They don’t have to define it, it’s an English word that has it’s own meaning already established. I don’t see any confusing issue with worrying about the definition of this word that contributes to the controversy. This controversy is not caused by a lack of a definition of the word “uncatchable” included in the rulebook, it’s much more complicated than that and is a logical and systemic failure with how the rulebook is generally constructed. There are tons of things that still need to be cleaned up, too many loopholes and omissions and lack of clarity for a number of things that could potentially come up in a game that many of us have never even seen happen in a game. But all of those unique one of a kind type plays and scenarios aren’t going to be controversial until they happen first and then everybody realizes there’s a major problem with the rulebook after the fact.

    The NFL has the worst rulebook of any sport in the world, and it’s not even close.

  3. What’s even more mind-blowing is the fact that the 2013 edition of the officiating casebook is only 106 pages long… It seems like they have way more rules than that these days….

  4. It doesn’t really matter if it was uncatchable; that only applies to pass interference. Defensive holding, on the other hand, has nothing to do with when or where a pass is thrown. Kuechly grabbed Gronkowski. Five yard penalty. First down.

  5. I guess now the technique is to just maul the receiver and shove him away from the ball so it will deem the ball uncatchable.

  6. johnnycamparm says:
    Nov 19, 2013 2:01 PM
    What’s even more mind-blowing is the fact that the 2013 edition of the officiating casebook is only 106 pages long… It seems like they have way more rules than that these days….

    They must be using very fine print.

  7. who cares, its over!!!!

    stop the whinning and move on……
    start getting your excuses and crying ready for another loss come sunday.

  8. And how would you define uncatchable, that is the better question. Does the ball have to be x feet above a receiver’s fully extended arms, or outside of an x foot radius around the receiver (assuming he could instantly turn in any direction) or maybe only x feet away from the direction he is facing/running? Then if you could define it that way it would still be a judgement call as the officials can’t really determine any of those measurements. Maybe we can add a green “catchable pass” zone around each receiver like the yellow first down line. Then they could go to replay to determine if a pass was uncatchable or not.

    Let’s face it, some things just have to be judgement calls. That’s why we pay the officials all that money.

  9. I get them thinking it’s uncatchable but that’s not really for them to decide, especially late in the game like that. It is either a penalty or not. Throw the flag and stick to it or don’t throw the flag. If flag wasn’t thrown, nobody would be talking about this right now. Either way, the phantom holding call on McCourty that set up the panther TD was a lot worse. A game changer. 1st and 10 instead of 4th down, to be fair, the pats going for a TD on 3rd and one was a terrible decision as well.

  10. I am neither a Panthers fan or a Patriots fan. But here is what I saw. There was no pass interference on the play, given the integrity of the game.

    First off, the ball was completely un-catchable. This isn’t Madden. A player cant stop and and jump the opposite way 5 yards in the blink of an eye while also having to fight in front of three guys. Not possible, and it’s silly that people think he could make that play. This isn’t backyard football. The speed of the game is insane.

    When they entered the endzone there was minor hand grabbing… if you slow it down to the real time, the pass interference really didn’t start until the back of the endzone, simultaneously as the ball was intercepted 5 yards short.

    It was the last play of the game, and it would have been a crime to call a penalty on a throw into triple coverage 5 yards short of the intended target.

    Again, a fan of no team here. Just an honest observer who doesn’t like to fight the system and agree with ESPN/TMZ.

  11. The rule book is a mess. The NFL needs to terminate the current competition committee and bring in some people that aren’t afraid of making decisions.

  12. Nov 19, 2013, 2:01 PM EST
    It doesn’t really matter if it was uncatchable; that only applies to pass interference. Defensive holding, on the other hand, has nothing to do with when or where a pass is thrown. Kuechly grabbed Gronkowski. Five yard penalty. First down.

    first time I have seen this point. It was holding. Does uncatchable apply?

  13. TheDPR says:
    Nov 19, 2013 2:01 PM
    It doesn’t really matter if it was uncatchable; that only applies to pass interference. Defensive holding, on the other hand, has nothing to do with when or where a pass is thrown. Kuechly grabbed Gronkowski. Five yard penalty. First down.


    Exactly how I thought it was going to called while thinking about it as they were thinking about it.

    New England should have been given one more shot at the end zone. He was mugged. Fair is fair.

  14. @TheDPR – defensive holding only applies prior to the pass being thrown, if I recall correctly. Without the benefit of a replay in front of me right now, I don’t believe the physical hold took place until after the pass was in the air. I’ll have to track down some replay angles, though.

  15. The location of the thrown football doesn’t even matter. Suppose a TE was getting held in the flat while the pass was thrown to the endzone. There would still be a penalty away from the ball (Holding or Illegal Contact). Why is everyone getting hung up on catchable vs. uncatchable?

  16. Whether or not the pass was “uncatchable” doesn’t matter!

    It was defensive holding and/or illegal contact and/or inappropriate hugging. A pass doesn’t even need to be thrown to make that call!

  17. You cant really call interference here because Gronk wouldnt have made a play on the ball EVEN with Keuchly not “mugging” him. At best Gronk would have been the defender because Lester was in a better position to make the play.

    Defensive holding? Maybe. But even then the ball was underthrown and Lester made a great game ending play.

  18. So, let us get this right.. Brady gets a friggin rule named after him but when he under throws a receiver on the last play of the game he gets ticked of, cusses out the refs, doesn’t get a flag for that AND people are debating whether the ball was catch-able or not.. Lawyering is what is killing this game!!! Get over it NE fans.. YOUR TEAM LOST ONE! Jeez

  19. The key lesson here is when your opponent throws the ball to another WR and you are defending somebody else, just take that guy and body slam him to the ground. Just don’t hit him in his face or neck area, or an area close to those areas.

  20. I’ve been discussing this with a co-worker and while i believe the flag shouldn’t have been picked up (it was thrown for a reason) he made a good point.

    Defensive holding can be called from anywhere on the field…regardless of if the ball in that receivers direction or not

    So its not surprising that there is no definition for a catchable.

    Its a judgment call and the judgement should have been left up to the ref who called it because he had the best view and he deemed that Gronkoski wasn’t able to come back to the ball.

    Also I heard it discussed that Kuechly didn’t impede him because he took gronk where he was trying to go and that gronk could have tried to come back to the ball…but if you look@the replay Gronk tried to plant a foot to come back but gave up when he was being held and saw the guy jump in front of the ball.

    I understnad the rule is that if the ball is tipped or intercepted b4 it reaches the intended receiver then its nullified…but the hold was made even b4 the interceptor got his hands on the ball.

    Needless to say………Flag shouldnt have been picked up.

  21. @ubpinaz , DPR and others…

    See Barnwell’s article on GrantLand. DH defined:

    The defensive player cannot use his hands or arms to push from behind, hang onto, or encircle an eligible receiver in a manner that restricts movement as the play develops. Beyond this five-yard limitation, a defender may use his hands or arms ONLY to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by a receiver. In such reaction, the defender may not contact a receiver who attempts to take a path to evade him.

    No concern about the timing of the pass. It’s just holding, pure and simple.

  22. Roger Goodell can talk all he wants about protecting the shield and the integrity of the game. But as long as he allows boobs to officiate, claiming there’s no foul when a defender physically restrains a receiver who’s trying to get back to the ball, the game has no integrity. I don’t need any former official in the booth to tell me that was a good call. I’ve been watching football all my life. I know what I saw.

  23. @dynast77 once a pass IS thrown, any holding or illegal contact is either pass interference or it is nothing (if uncatchable by the involved players)

  24. Here’s a clue as to what uncatchable means — if the ball is intercepted four yards in front of the intended receiver, it’s impossible he would catch it.

    The pick is KEY to this ruling. It doesn’t matter where the ball might have ended up, it doesn’t matter what Luke was doing to Gronk…an interception or deflection that far away from the receiver necessarily means he was prevented from catching it. There are NO hypotheticals in play — the pick rendered Gronk’s targeting absolutely moot.

  25. It is hard to say it was uncatchable when Gronkowski could not even turn around since he was being mugged that badly. How can he look at the ball, let alone even attempt to come back to the ball? He could not even see it due to the PI since it was SO bad.

  26. I’m torn on this one. Being a fan of a rival to the panthers I wanted the patriots to win. I think the call should’ve been pass interference but knowing how the patriots got away with no call holding penalty that would’ve won the game for the saints on that final Tom Brady pass in that game I feel ok that New England didn’t get the call Monday night.

    The problem was that New England forgot to bring their own officials to Carolina.

  27. PI kind of makes most passes uncatchable… Although we all get what they mean when they say uncatcatchable the rule is still very unclear. If that was Calvin Johnson trying to make the catch I bet the call would have been enforced.

  28. OMG you cry when there’s too much information in the rule book, you cry when there isn’t enough!!!

    Look, it’s over and the Patsy’s lost. The “catchability” of the pass can be debated but so what!!?? The Patsy’s have had more than their share of questionable calls go their way!

    No other team cries as much as Cry Brady and the Patsy’s!!!! WAHHHH WAHHH WAHHH the play didn’t go my way!!! WAHHH WAHHH

    Stifle!!! Get over it or. . . . Be Mad Bro!! LOL

  29. What is being pointed out here is EXACTLY the issue that is putting the game into the hands of the referees.

    The need for a ‘definition of uncatchable’ is now looking for a bunch of lawyers to create the definition.

    Rule books need to be lightened, not more defined.

    Is uncatchable kind of like sort of pregnant?

  30. If it is uncatchable it’s only because Kuechly kept holding and pushing Gronkowski away from the ball. If everyone would look at the play closely they would see that Gronk, on TWO occasions tried to set his right foot to make an attempt to reverse his monmentum and get to where the ball was. Obviously, by the video evidence of this, Gronk couldn’t get to the ball because of what Kuechly was doing to him. Watch the play closely and you’ll see what I mean – Gronk tries to plant his right foot twice.

  31. I’ve always thought that not calling a foul because the refs perceive the ball to be “uncatachable” is quite a joke.

    First, the interference often prevents the receiver from being in a better position to make the pass catchable.

    Second, is a QB supposed to throw a catchable pass and hope the officials throw the flag? That’s a bad position to put a player in.

    I think pass interference should be called whether or not a pass is deemed “catchable” by the ref. NFL should be concentrating on eliminated judgment calls like they did with the 5 yard incidental facemask.

  32. I am not a fan of either team nor am I a fan of the referees. I saw the highlight of the play in question on ESPN and it wasn’t even close. Gronk had no chance to catch that pass. It wasn’t even near him. It was way short and thus the interception. NOT EVEN CLOSE. The refs got one right for a change.

  33. Everyone says the rules are making offense too easy, well here you go. This application of the rules just ensured lots of shut outs. I suggest all defenses put linebackers against wide receivers going forward. And put defensive ends against tight ends. At the snap of the ball, the defense simy tackles the pass catchers, and lays on top of them (think “pancake” block for offensive lineman). No player can catch a ball in that position. Rendering every pass uncatchable. If gronk was held, or illegally contacted, then those rules obviously wouldn’t apply either

  34. Some other post made a good point. Isn’t it holding when a defender grabs a wide receiver after 5 yards? That would make it a 5 yard penalty and an automatic 1st down. Where and to whom the ball was thrown is irrelevant.

  35. I like how people are claiming that a guy with a 7 foot wingspan could NEVER have had a shot to catch a ball that was 2-4 yards away.

    If he could have taken 1 or 2 steps back towards the ball he would have been right there. And perhaps the DB wouldnt have had such an easy line to the ball.

    PI at best, illegal contact at worst. And that ball was no more uncatchable than the one that was 10 feet over Olsen’s head when McCourty go the PI on the final Carolina drive. You know, the play where Olsen clamped down on Mcourty’s arms and held him, and started flailing around. Maybe if Gronkowski sold it a little better the call would have stood.

  36. This is all gotten pretty frigg’in hilarious!!

    Makes sense why there is so much subjectiveness with the officials since there is no definition for this critical context in their rulings! Funny too too funny! Only in the NFL!

    Since defensive holding would be before the ball was thrown, which I don’t think applies in this case? Does anyone know the distinction between illegal contact & pass interference?

    FINAL WORD: Knowing now its a free for all with the rulings of the officials AND nothing is being done about it by the league Teams have to just play at a level to overcome any bad calls from officials. Be up by 2 scores by the 2:00 warning in Q4 or risk an errant or subjective call affecting the outcome!!

  37. What’s catchable is subjective… it always will be. There’s no way you can make a definitive rule about that. The ref. made a subjective call that the ball wasn’t catchable by the receiver. Would I be pissed off if I were a Pats fan? Yes. But did the ref make the right call? Looks to me like the ball was intercepted well ahead of the receiver by a defender not covering the receiver. If that defender wasn’t there it would have made a difference because the receiver would have had a shot at the ball. BUT because it was picked off it wasn’t catchable by the receiver. I think he got it right.

  38. The call should have been holding not pi. That being said not a single person in the pats organization has cried or whined about this they moved on to the broncos in the locker room after the game

  39. The problem here is that the back judge who was standing right there threw the flag because gronk was being mauled. look at it this way if keuckly was not there and gronk was not mauled he would of gone after the ball. the fact remains that there wasa pass interference in the back of the endzone brady threw a good pass a few yards short were only a player that was not being mauled by another could of got it PERIOD horrible call and cost us the game. now woth that being said the good part is next week BB and TB will take it out on an old nemesis. cant wait

  40. The ref was pulling the flag out as Brady was releasing the ball. He didn’t know if it was going to be catchable, he knew the defender couldn’t do that to Gronk. As soon as Brady released the ball it was PI. That’s why when a QB sees something like that he will throw the ball in the area of the reciever, to get the call. Doesn’t matter if he can catch it, you can’t mug the receiver.

  41. @ubpinaz – “once a pass IS thrown, any holding or illegal contact is either pass interference or it is nothing”

    So once the ball is in the air, everyone is free to tackle, mug, trip, or bear-hug anyone else on the field so long as they’re away from the ball? Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.

  42. What if the ball had gone through Lester’s hands though? There is no presumption that Lester necessarily has to make that catch. If Lester, like many many players on many many plays, let’s that ball go through his hands, the ball would have been very catchable if there was no PI. Seriously, why is nobody even mentioning this fact?

  43. At the very least holding should have been called. Kuechly was mugging Gronk so tight, I thought the two of them were having sex.

    One of the more disgraceful calls in the history of the NFL. I have to wonder if the fix was in, or if the refs had money on the outcome or if the refs were Panther fans. Pats should file a formal protest to this atrocity. I’m done with the NFL for awhile. I refuse to invest 3 hours of my life when the fix is clearly in.

  44. Dear tuck rule boohoo-ers,
    The Tuck Rule, is no longer a factor in the league… it wasn’t a good rule to begin with, however, it was properly called at the time. It has nothing to do with the this call or even the Patriots–the NFL put it in, the refs called it by the book, the Patriots legally benefited, the Raiders didn’t (in the most famous/infamous instance of it being called).

    Oh and by the way, that was 2001–time to move on!

  45. Kuechly covered Tony Gonzalez in exactly the same way a few weeks ago and got away with it; forget the PI, what about holding and contact downfield past five yards !

    Have to admit, having played and watched football for many years, still don’t understand why sometimes the refs allow virtual muggings 40 yards down the field and then nail guys for simple tugs and pushes six yards downfield…..I think by now we’re all conditioned to immediately look for a flag after a big play, and have to hope our team is not going to get ticky-tacked by an official who feels the need to throw his flag…..

  46. Lets see Brady who has a rule for him to keep Oakland from winning, can run after an official and use the F word all the way up the tunnel, plays for a coach caught CHEATING, has had one of the easiest schedules in the last five years, now we are to feel sorry because they had a call go against them. Typical for the darlings of the East. We will all see how preferential treatment goes to Brady when he does no get fined for what was on national TV his actions toward the official when game ended.

  47. If that was Steve Smith being held by Aquib Talib you can bet that the flag would have been upheld and these very boards would be blistering the NFL and the Patiots.

    But because the Pats were at the receiving end of it, it somehow makes it okay because they received a favorable call a dozen years ago?

    The non-call was bogus as was the explanation. Any of you all arm chair refs had that happen to your fave team you’d be screaming bloody murder right about now.

    That crew and the NFL owe the Pats an apology for that mess.

  48. 1)Three things would Gronk have caught the ball.. no
    2)Was it pass interference yeah everyone saw it
    3)Lastly, we all know that with game deciding plays the refs hold their whistle tight.

    So it is what it is, and lets move on.

  49. A defender cannot impede a reciever from going for the ball unless the defender is actively trying to go for the ball also. Keuchly clearly wasn’t going for the ball and was just trying to block Gronk from going back for the ball. It’s the same principle when a defender gets called for pass interference when he is running with a reciever and impedes the reciever from getting to the ball, but never turns his head around to locate the ball

  50. doe22us…3)…we all know…that the refs hold their whistle tight ?

    that would make perfect sense had the flag NOT been thrown, but it was so apparently the back judge (?) closest to the play, deemed it egregious enough to throw the flag in the first place.

  51. Defensive holding on a receiver does not apply after the ball has been thrown. When the ball is on the air then the interference rule applies.

  52. @melikefootball

    – It’s good to know you know exactly what Brady was saying to the ref.

    – I assume you are referring to the Tuck Rule, which at the time was a rule in the book correctly enforced (although I always thought it was silly even though as a fan it benefited my team). However, it is no longer a rule in the game.

    – Schedules are set by a formula so your perception of New England getting an easy schedule is flawed (although given your comments indicate you didn’t know the Tuck Rule was repealed so it is not surprising you do not understand how NFL schedules are made).

    As to last night it is unfortunate it happened and I disagree with the call but what is done is done.

    Still, it would be good to discuss a controversial call without the trolls and the people who can’t let go it was against a specific team they dislike and therefore they see it as fair but if it was called against the team they root for they would be the first to complain about it.

    I won’t stop watching but it also know it won’t be too long until the next really bad call and messages boards filled with trolls and those who justify it as correct because they hate the team it was enforced and/or not enforced against.

  53. One other thing…

    If you are one of those trolls who is going to refer to the Saints game and the perceived missed holding call as justification for what occurred against the Panthers as being okay even though you know it is wrong…

    It would only be a good comparison IF in the Saints game an official threw a flag on the play based on what he saw in the moment and then picked it up off the ground.

    Yes, a missed call is a missed call. Still, there would be little to no controversy if the official hadn’t thrown the flag. As soon as the flag was thrown and picked up that is the controversy. If he saw enough to throw the flag there was an infraction.

    Anyhoo… there is nothing that can be done now as what’s done is done.

  54. Here’s a clue as to what uncatchable means — if the ball is intercepted four yards in front of the intended receiver, it’s impossible he would catch it.

    The pick is KEY to this ruling. It doesn’t matter where the ball might have ended up, it doesn’t matter what Luke was doing to Gronk…an interception or deflection that far away from the receiver necessarily means he was prevented from catching it. There are NO hypotheticals in play — the pick rendered Gronk’s targeting absolutely moot.


    People are just making stuff up now. Are you kidding me dude?

    How many Interceptions have been waived off because the D committed a penalty? A 100 million maybe? Do you watch football?

    I’m sure Interceptions would go WAAAAYY up if Defenses were allowed to hold and restrain receivers the way Gronkowski was held. Geez…

  55. How much more whining needs to happen before the NFL just goes and changes the score of the game ?
    I keep hitting refresh and the score is still 24-20 panthers.

  56. Seems to me there was an interference call earlier when Brady threw the ball 5 feet over the receivers hand and interference was called even though Michael Jordan could not have reached that ball. Pats got a free first down and went on to score the go ahead FG. Guess it swings both ways.

    Also def holding can only be called if it happens before the ball is thrown. Once the ball is in the air only interference can be called.

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