After the 1999 NFC title game, when former Buccaneers receiver Bert Emmanuel caught a pass in crunch time but the ball touched the ground while in his possession and the catch was ruled not a catch, the NFL modified the rule to allow the ball to touch the ground and still be a catch.
Since then, no one really knows what a catch is and isn’t.
The rule that allows the ball to touch the ground as long as the receiver maintains possession through the act of going to the ground unless before going to the ground the receiver gets two feet on the ground and either performs an act common to the game or has the time to perform an act common to the game (yep, that’s the rule) understandably has confused players, coaches, media, fans, and (most importantly) officials ever since. Years before what appeared to be a catch from Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant in the 2014 divisional round against the Packers was deemed not to be a catch, the NFL couldn’t quite figure out how to apply the rule, with former V.P. of officiating Mike Pereira admitting that he had confused the officials in an effort to clarify the rule.
“I mean, this has gotten to be so convoluted, this whole act of catching a pass when you’re going to the ground, that it’s very difficult for people to grasp what is a catch and what isn’t a catch,” Pereira said in 2009.
A modification to the rules has been needed for years, but the league has resisted changing the provision. Even after the highest-stakes application of the rule resulted in an outcome that defied the reasonable expectations of most who believed they were seeing a catch, the league has declined to adjust the rule to encompass within the definition of a catch anything that looks like a catch.
The NFL says it’s too difficult to change the language of the rule. The ultimately challenge is to find a way to make it all very simple. On Friday morning, during the five minutes or so that I actually prepare for a three-hour radio show (and it shows), the light bulb flickered.
1. If a player catches a pass, gets two feet (or one shin/knee) down, and then goes to the ground, he must secure possession through the act of going to the ground. If the ball touches the ground at any time in the process, the pass is incomplete.
2. If a player catches a passes, gets two feet down and takes a third step, the catch is complete. If he loses possession while going to the ground without being touched by an opponent while falling, it’s a fumble. If touched by an opponent in the act of going to the ground, the play is over when the player hits the ground, regardless of whether he loses possession.
That’s it. Simple. Clean. Easy to understand.
The only downside is that, by removing the ability of a player who catches a pass and gets two feet (or one shin/knee) down to compete the reception even if the ball touches the ground and doesn’t move, passes deemed to be complete under the Bert Emmanuel rule will once again be incomplete. But that’s an acceptable trade off for greater certainty — especially since the notion that a football can be caught despite touching the ground turns the concept of catching a football on its head.
Share your thoughts below, especially if you think you have an even better idea.