After years of wrestling with the proper formulation of the catch rule, the NFL finally figured it out a few years ago. But there’s still one more change that needs to be made in order to make the rule as clear as it can be.
The league should embrace a requirement that the ball should never touch the ground, at any part of the process of completing the catch. Even if the ball is otherwise secure in the hands of the person trying to catch it.
Years of confusion regarding the contours of the catch rule commenced when the NFL decided that the non-catch by Bucs receiver Bert Emanuel in the 1999 NFC Championship should have been a catch. In that case, Emanuel had both hands on either side of the ball, but it touched the ground. Under the rules at the time, that wasn’t a catch. Thus, the ruling on the field of a catch was properly overturned via replay review.
The NFL later decided that such efforts should count as a catch, sparking ambiguity and inconsistency that left no one knowing what a catch really is. Even now, the fact that the ball touches the ground doesn’t immediately nullify a catch. Frankly, it should.
It’s a clear standard, one that makes it easier to determine whether rulings on the field were clearly and obviously wrong. If the ball ever touches the ground before the full process of the catch has been completed, it’s not a catch.
This would eliminate any conversations about whether the ball touched the ground but didn’t touch the ground to the point where the ground assisted the catch, or whatever. The analysis would boil down to one question. Did the ball touch the ground?
We saw it last night in the Seahawks-Washington game. A fourth-and-goal throw by Taylor Heinicke to Logan Thomas was ruled a touchdown. The ball touched the ground. ESPN rules analyst John Parry, a former referee, opined that it wasn’t clearly and obviously not a catch.
Under the pre-Emanuel rule, it wouldn’t have even been a discussion. The ball touched the ground. No catch, even if he had control of the ball when it struck the turf.
The ball did indeed touch the ground in the Bert Emanuel case. It wasn’t a catch. It shouldn’t have been a catch. For decades, that rule made sense. If the ball doesn’t touch the ground, it’s a catch. If it touches the ground, it’s not a catch.
At a time when the NFL constantly should be looking for ways to improve officiating, making it easier to officiate indirectly improves officiating. It would considerably be easier to officiate what is and isn’t a catch if the NFL retreated to the rule that the ball must never touch the ground at any point of the process of making the catch.