Whenever I think I finally understand it, I realize that I don’t. Which summarizes my own personal relationship with the catch rule over the past several years. And pretty much everyone else’s.
Recent changes to the rule book seem to reinforce the notion, as suggested by a key (but largely overlooked) ruling in the NFC playoff game between the Packers and Cardinals, that the NFL wants game officials to call a catch a catch if it looks like a catch. Applying the replay standard to the very specific language of the revised rule, it becomes much harder to find “indisputable visual evidence” that the receiver didn’t have the ball long enough to do the various things that he needs to have time to do.
Then came Friday, when NFL V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino sent arguably the opposite message.
“When it’s bang-bang, rule it incomplete,” Blandino told the league’s 124 game officials at an annual preseason clinic in Dallas, via Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com. “When in doubt, make it incomplete.”
Blandino’s advice to err on the side of calling a pass incomplete flows from his confidence that the ruling can be fixed via replay review, if there’s indisputable visual evidence that the player actually had the ball long enough.
“[I]f we look at it on replay and it did appear the receiver had it long enough, then we change it and move on,” Blandino said. “Don’t change how you’re officiating these plays. Bang-bang is incomplete, and the time element allows us to be consistent on these bang-bang plays.”
So maybe there’s a way to harmonize this. Maybe a true bang-bang play should be called incomplete, if the player loses the ball immediately after the second foot comes down. And maybe that handful of plays every year involving players getting two feet down (and maybe a third, e.g., #DezCaughtIt) while going to the ground but not keeping control of the ball — plays in which the expectations of players, owners, coaches, fans, and media conflict with the ruling on the field and in the replay booth — will now result in a decision that the ball was caught, with the replay standard (if applied correctly) unable to overturn the ruling.
Or maybe not.
“There are going to be four or five plays like this every year where everybody says, ‘That’s got to be a catch. It looks like a catch,'” Blandino said. “On the playground, that’s a catch. In the school yard, that’s a catch. But it’s not under our rule, because he did not have the ball long enough to be a runner before he got to the ground.”
So instead of giving the people what they want (and, in turn, setting the stage for more catches, yards, and touchdowns), the NFL will continue to defy the expectations of its stakeholders and customers. Which will set the stage for more controversy and criticism and scrutiny.
There’s still hope. Maybe some officials, fully aware of how hard it will be to overturn the ruling on the field given the new language to the rule, will decide that they’re going to call it a catch if they think it looks like a catch.