Recently, I went from thinking (again) that I finally understand the catch rule to thinking (again) that I don’t. I’m now back to understanding it.
The understanding came from a combination of a ruling in the Packers-Cardinals playoff game regarding a catch made by Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald and the latest changes to the catch rule.
In the playoff game, the ruling on the field was that Fitzgerald, who lost possession upon going to the ground, had the ball long enough to become a runner, making the catch complete. On replay, the ruling on the field was somewhat surprisingly upheld, because the play looked very similar to the notorious Dez Bryant non-catch from a year earlier. For Bryant, the ruling on the field (by an official looking right at the play) was that he caught it. On replay, the ruling was overturned.
The rule book, as revised, contains an express explanation of the various, specific ways that a receiver has enough time to become a runner. This necessarily makes it harder to overturn a ruling on the field, given that the referee (with direct input from the league office) must find indisputable visual evidence that the receiver lacked sufficient time to do any of the various things now enumerated in the rule.
My takeaway? Officials can call a catch a catch if they think it looks like a catch, and it will be harder to overturn the ruling of a catch on replay review.
Then came an item from ESPN.com, presenting as a new development the advice given by NFL V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino to the league’s 124 officials, specifically in reference to “bang-bang” plays: “When in doubt, make it incomplete.”
Appearing on Tuesday’s PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio, Blandino explained the situation in a way that makes me think that what I originally thought is still accurate. I think.
“That’s not new,” Blandino said of the when-in-doubt-make-it-incomplete approach. “That’s language that’s in the rule book, it’s been in the rule book since the ’90’s and it’s been the practical application of the rule for as long as I can remember. . . . The rules are written for the officials on the field to make decisions in real time and then we get into replay and we have the ability to slow things [down] and process plays in ways that officials can’t do on the field when they see something once. So I think we get to replay and that distorts the issue a little bit but on the field at full speed seeing it once that’s always been the directive. That goes back to Competition Committees in years past [saying] . . . that the receiver has to put the football away, you have to have them all after the second foot is down long enough to, in the past it was defined as having the ball long enough to perform an act common to the game.
“Now, it’s defined as having the ball long enough to clearly become a runner so that’s always been the directive to the game officials. Because of that the concept of a bang-bang play, a bang-bang play is one where control, two feet, contact with a defender, it all happens a the same time and at full speed when you watch a bang-bang play the official can watch that and rule that incomplete and be consistent, and that’s always the direction. If we didn’t have that directive and we said ‘control and two feet and it’s over’ then some of these bang-bang plays would be ruled complete, some would be ruled incomplete, we’d have less consistency, more of them would go to replay so that’s always been the directive. It’s in the rule book like I said since the 90’s, it’s for those bang-bang plays so we can be consistent and then when it does go to replay, which a very small percentage of the overall passing plays do, then we look at whether the receiver got two feet down and then did he tuck the ball away, did he turn upfield, did he have the ability to ward off or avoid contact and if he has all of those things then we can change it to a completed catch and fumble or touchdown or whatever it may be.”
So, to summarize (and harmonize), the “when in doubt, rule it incomplete” applies only to the bang-bang situation where the player makes the catch, gets two feet down, and instantly is hit by a defender. The situation becomes very different when, after getting two feet down, the receiver commences the process of going to the ground. I asked Blandino if, in those situations, the official can call it a catch if it looks like a catch, and if given the language of the rule it will be harder to overturn the decision during replay review.
“I think that’s a fair point and the [Larry] Fitzgerald play is a great example of that,” Blandino said. “The officials on the field ruled it a catch because they saw him control the ball, take two steps, and then turn upfield before he went to the ground. It was close and that’s why when it went to replay it did not meet the standard of clear and obvious evidence to overturn, and that’s always been our direction in replay. We want the officials if they see it as a bang-bang play to rule it incomplete. If they see the receiver turn upfield, tuck it away, do those things after the two steps are down, then they should rule it complete. Then it goes to replay and then we apply the clear and obvious standard and if it’s not clear and obvious then the call of the field will be upheld. That’s how we direct our game officials and how we handle things in replay.”
That’s the practical message to officials. If it looks like a catch, call it a catch. Given the new language in the rule book, it will be harder to find indisputable visual evidence that it wasn’t a catch.