The new rule book is out, posted online for anyone to (try to) read and to (try to) understand. The hot button continues to be the definition of what is and isn’t a catch, and this year’s rule book has a new provision aimed at articulating the moment when a player who gets both hands on the ball and both feet down has officially caught a pass.
Previously, Rule 8, Article 3 simply required the player with the ball in his possession and both feet (or any body part other than his hands) on the ground to “maintain control over the ball . . . until he has clearly become a runner.” The only problem, of course, is that it’s not clear to all officials what it takes to “clearly become a runner.”
The language has now been enhanced, with an effort to articulate the always-ambiguous time requirement inherent to completing the process of catching the ball. Under the 2016 rule book, a player has caught a pass when he “maintains control of the ball . . . until he has the ball long enough to clearly become a runner. A player has the ball long enough to become a runner when, after his second foot is on the ground, he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up field, or taking additional steps.” (New language added in italics.)
Ostensibly, this language is present to guide the officials when deciding whether a catch has occurred, specifically when the receiver loses possession upon hitting the ground. The primary motivation for making the changes, however, could be (and my guess would be that it is) to make it harder to overturn a ruling on the field that the player has indeed caught the ball.
With the league office now directly involved in all replay reviews — and with the league office technically able to chime in before any ruling on the field is finalized and in turn teed up for formal replay review — there’s an easy way for the NFL to minimize those situations in which a Keystone Cops vibe arises regarding the question of whether a player has caught the ball. The unspoken approach, I believe, has become to nudge the officials toward erring on the side of calling a catch anything that looks like a catch. Then, applying the high bar of “indisputable visual evidence” during replay review, it becomes very hard to conclude that it’s sufficiently clear from the available camera angles that the player didn’t make the catch.
The new language in the rule will make it even harder to overturn the ruling on the field of a catch. The question for each referee who goes under the hood (and who hears directly from Dean Blandino or Al Riveron while doing so) will now be this: Is it indisputable that the player didn’t have the ball long enough to avoid or ward off impending contact of an opponent, to tuck the ball away, to turn up the field, or to take additional steps?
Blandino and Riveron surely will emphasize during the replay review process that the “has the ball long enough” requirement compels not just a frame-by-frame analysis of the images but a full-speed assessment of whether the player had the ball long enough to do any of the things listed, even if he didn’t do them. And there must be indisputable evidence that he didn’t have the time to do those things.
The league’s shift toward the reliance on the strict terms of the replay standard as a way to allow game officials to apply a know-it-when-you-see-it approach to the ruling on the field became apparent during the Green Bay-Arizona playoff game, after a ruling of a catch by Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald wasn’t overturned via replay review, even though he lost possession of the ball upon hitting the ground. The NFL, however, has to date shied away from making any formal announcements regarding the new practical approach to the catch rule — possibly because the NFL realizes that saying too much about it would legitimize the “Dez caught it” crowd.
And indeed he did catch it. In that playoff loss to Green Bay from 18 months ago, Bryant clearly had the ball long enough to become a runner, because he become a runner, tucking the ball into his elbow and lunging toward the goal line with it.
The league’s new procedure is aimed at ensuring another “Dez caught it” situation arises without admitting that Dez caught it. Ideally, moving forward the things the NFL regards as a catch will mesh with the visceral, common sensical reaction of fans who believe that the league has tried on too many occasions over most of the last decade to turn valid catches into incompletions.