How the NFL's 'Catch Rule' Became the Worst Rule in Sports

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJuly 14, 2016

There isn't a more infuriating regulation in all of sports than the NFL's catch rule. It's like a combination of the IRS's tax code, the Code of Hammurabi and those giant heads on Easter Island. We can all see it, but damned if anyone knows what it all means.

Over the past handful of years, the rule has been altered and changed and "clarified" in a way that's been—in the eyes of many—about as clear as mud.

The "process of the catch" gave way to "making a football move" gave way to "an act common to the game" gave way to "becoming a runner with the ball." With every attempt to eliminate the confusion, fans became that much more confused.

It isn't just those who watch football. The young men playing it are just as lost. As Andrew Hawkins of the Cleveland Browns told Kalyn Kahler of The MMQB, "I am just as lost as any fan or any player."

Seattle's Doug Baldwin is similarly nonplussed. "I've heard so many different rules that it is hard to define it myself," he said, per Kahler. "You can't completely define it."

However, at least one former wide receiver believes the catch rule has evolved to the point that it's "very accurate." It's in enforcement and interpretation where the league badly needs to catch up, so to speak.

If there's a former player whose opinions should carry weight where controversial catches are concerned, it's Bert Emanuel's.

After all, it wasn't Calvin Johnson's grab in 2010 that started the controversy about what is and is not a catch. Nor was it Dez Bryant's non-catch in the 2014 playoffs that had the highest stakes.

No, it was Emanuel's grab (that wasn't) in the 1999 NFC title game where the cacophony about catches began.

    

'My Nightmare'

That's how Emanuel, who played eight NFL seasons for five different teams, described the play that's come to define his career while speaking with Bleacher Report.

In 1999, Emanuel was a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Buccaneers had gone 11-5 that season en route to their first NFC Central title in 18 years. After squeaking by the Washington Redskins in the divisional round, the Buccaneers found themselves in a dogfight with the 13-3 Rams in St. Louis.

Tampa actually held a 6-5 lead (yes, 6-5...against the Greatest Show on Turf) in the fourth quarter before a Ricky Proehl touchdown put the Rams ahead. It also put the Buccaneers into desperation mode, and it's on that final Tampa drive where Emanuel found himself on a collision course with history.

"It was late in the game," Emanuel told Bleacher Report. "There was about a minute left on the clock. I remember it being 2nd-and-16 or something like that [it was 2nd-and-23]. I ran a simple whip route, where I went about seven yards down and across the field before turning back toward the sideline. Shaun King threw a dart that got on me quick coming out of my break, and the only thing I could do was leave my feet, grab the ball with two hands and trap it against my chest. Just secure the catch because I knew I wouldn't have a chance to run with the ball afterward.

"We had one timeout left," Emanuel continued, "and so once I made the catch, hit the ground, rolled over and got up...Walt Anderson was the side judge...he called it a catch. I called timeout and tossed Walt the ball because it was not a first down.

"I walked over to the sideline (that put us on the 23- or 24-yard line with about 40 seconds left), and I remember Coach [Tony] Dungy saying, 'You guys ready to go to the Super Bowl?' as I'm thinking, 'Yeah, this is going to be sweet.' Coach called a double route in the huddle and asked if I could beat my man on a post route. I smiled and said, 'Coach, I can beat him on anything.'

"Right about that time the referee came over and said, 'Hey, we're going to review the last play.' Coach and I looked at one another and said, 'What are they reviewing?' to which the ref said, 'We're going to review the catch.'

"Coach Dungy asked, 'What's wrong with the catch? It was a clean catch.' I told the official the same thing, 'Yeah. It was a clean catch.' The referee just said, 'They're reviewing it upstairs.'

"At that point," Emanuel said, "Coach and I looked at one another and I said, 'That doesn't sound good.'"

Emanuel wasn't wrong. Replays (instant replay returned to the NFL in 1999 after a seven-year absence) showed that when Emanuel went to the ground, the ball contacted the turf at the Trans World Dome, although at no point did Emanuel appear to lose control.

As referee Bill Carollo told reporters after the game, he saw all he needed to: "It was apparent that the player, as he was catching the ball, he used the ground, and the tip of the ball hit the ground. By rule, you cannot use the ground or have assistance from the ground to make a catch."

Carollo overturned Anderson's call, and after a pair of desperation heaves the Rams took over on downs, ran out the clock and advanced to Super Bowl XXXIV.

Emanuel told Bleacher Report he was devastated. "The game was over, confetti was everywhere, and all I could think was, 'This is a nightmare.'"

After the game, as he was surrounded by reporters, Emanuel said Peter Gammons asked the big question. "Bert, did you catch it?"

Emanuel said that as he numbly muttered "yeah," a different thought roared in his head. "What do you mean 'did I catch it?'" he wondered. "It wasn't close."

   

'Fixing' the Rules

Emanuel wasn't alone in that belief. As Chris Mortensen reported for ESPN.com at the time, the NFL's competition committee set about improving the nebulous catch rule in 2000.

For a time, things seemed to be better—at least in that plays like Emanuel's were now being ruled receptions...

Sometimes.

The catch rule still contained a vague requirement—that a player "must have possession, control and make a football move."

Longtime referee Jerry Markbreit attempted to define said "football move" in his column for the Chicago Tribune in 2004.

However, the catch rule underwent another transformation in 2007, as referee Ed Hochuli explained to the Atlanta Falcons' website (via Footballguys).

The notion of the "football move" was cast aside. The catch rule, as written in the official 2007 NFL rule book, was about as straightforward and streamlined as rules get in the National Football League.

There was still the occasional occurrence (usually on a play where the player went to the ground making an attempted catch in the end zone), but for the most part what is or isn't a catch faded to the background on the list of grievances from players and fans.

That is, until the mother of all dustups regarding a player going to the ground in the end zone ripped the lid off Pandora's box.

   

Process of the What?

There were still controversial catches after the rule change in 2007. But none of them captured the attention of fans nationwide and dominated the NFL news cycle. They came and went quietly.

That is, until a September afternoon in 2010.

Late in a game against the Chicago Bears in which the Detroit Lions trailed 19-14, wide receiver Calvin Johnson made what looked to be just the latest of his many highlight-reel catches. Despite double coverage, Johnson high-pointed the ball and appeared to both control it and get both feet down—just as the 2010 rule book states.

You'll note, however, that I said "appeared." After the officials huddled, the pass was ruled incomplete, with referee Gene Steratore stating, "The runner did not complete the catch during the process of the catch."

Wait, what?

Essentially, what Steratore was saying was that when Johnson went to the ground and then rolled over (at which point the ball popped out), he was still in the process of making the catch, a reference to the "item 1" section of the rule linked above.

As Tom Kowalski of MLive.com wrote at the time, Steratore attempted to elaborate on his ruling after the game.

Much like Emanuel a decade before, Johnson said he was left at a loss for answers. "I figured if I got two feet in and a knee down, to me, that's a catch," Johnson said. "That's why I got up and took off. Oh well, it is what it is and you can't go back."

Johnson wasn't the only professional pass-catcher who shook his head at the ruling. Emanuel told me it looked like a catch to him.

"As he's going down, the ball isn't moving," Emanuel said. "It's in his hands. And when it crosses the goal line, even for a split second, it's a touchdown. He goes to get up, the ball comes out of his hand and they call it no touchdown. And I'm thinking, 'When was that not a catch?'

"Because he didn't 'complete the act?'" Emanuel asked. "The act was completed when he grabbed the ball with one hand and for a second-and-a-half it didn't move. How long do you have to have possession? That's the magic question. I think they're just really, really overthinking it."

Emanuel isn't the only person who shares that sentiment. At the time, even pundits who supported the ruling, like ESPN's Kevin Seifert, didn't like the rule as written. Item 1 appeared to contradict the first part of the rule, and nowhere does it state with any real definition what the "process of the catch" is or how long it took to complete.

After several months of criticism, derision and overall mockery of the catch rule itself and the mythical process of making one, the NFL office knew that action was needed. And when the competition committee met in the spring of 2011, they set about clarifying what is and what is not a catch.

Whether they succeeded I'll leave to you, although you might want to grab a snack and hit the restroom.

Ladies and gentlemen, the 2011 iteration of the catch rule, in all its glory.

Yes, it's a mouthful (if you click on that link). Sometimes it becomes readily apparent NFL offices are overflowing with attorneys. This is one of those times.

It did little to assuage criticism that the league was overthinking what is and isn't a catch. But it was supposed to be wordiness with purpose. To define what the process of making a catch entailed.

Not so much. In fact, the biggest controversy yet (in terms of exposure) involving a catch that wasn't was still to come.

  

A Date with Dez-tiny

There was quite a kerfuffle about Johnson's non-catch, and that plus the changes made to the rule brought the catch rule back to the forefront of discussion in the NFL. However, for all the brouhaha, the fact remains that it was a regular-season game in September that had zero impact on that year's playoffs. The play just didn't have the football impact that Emanuel's did.

Neither did the next few dustups, including a wild Week 1 in 2013 where Johnson and Victor Cruz of the New York Giants were involved in nearly identical plays. Cruz's was called a reception. Johnson's was ruled an incomplete pass.

The 2013 campaign was a rough one for the officials as a whole. So bad, in fact, that in December of that year, veteran wide receiver Santana Moss of the Washington Redskins told Barry Wilner of the Associated Press, via Yahoo Sports, it was the worst officiating he'd ever seen:

It's probably been worse this whole year as a total. Not just this team, but I've watched a lot of football this year, it's been the worst that I've ever seen.

I understand so many things being changed, but at the end of the day, some of that stuff is crap. So hopefully somebody who's in a higher position will really watch this season alone, and then see some of the stuff that's being called and haven't been called, they can go and try to critique that.

By this point, criticism of what many perceived as an overly complicated and poorly enforced catch rule had become a weekly occurrence on television panel shows and talk radio. The league's tinkering with the rule had become an annual affair as a result of that criticism.

Granted, in the 2014 rule book, the catch rule itself remained essentially the same as in 2011. But addendums galore had been tacked on.

There was one regarding the "act common to the game" that read: "It is not necessary that he commit such an act, provided that he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so."

An addendum regarding simultaneous possession was added after the infamous "Fail Mary" play in 2012.

And one clarifying that the rules for a catch in the end zone are the same as in the field of play borne of the contention that disputed receptions like Johnson's contested grab(s) were touchdowns before he ever went to the ground in the first place.

Given all these rules (and addendums for every possibly contestable outcome), the NFL hoped that, while complicated, the catch rule covered all the bases. That the days of grousing about it were done.

Not even close. In that year's playoffs, a controversy exploded that rivaled Emanuel's catch both in its impact on the postseason and the level to which it brought about furor over the league's rules.

Toward the end of a tightly fought divisional-round game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, a trailing Dallas squad faced a make-or-break 4th-and-2 late in the fourth quarter. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo sailed a long pass toward the end zone. Wide receiver Dez Bryant leaped high into the air, snagged the ball, came down, took several steps and reached for the end zone. He came up just short of scoring, but the Cowboys appeared to be looking at a potentially game-winning 1st-and-goal.

Not so fast.

After Green Bay challenged the ruling of a completed pass, the call was stunningly overturned. As the Dallas Morning News reported, referee Gene Steratore (yes, the same Gene Steratore who ruled Johnson's catch incomplete) indicated that Bryant had failed to maintain possession throughout the process of the catch, despite reaching out for the end zone and the fact his elbow hit the ground before the ball moved at all.

The call was met with stunned disbelief in most circles and with apoplectic outrage by Dallas fans. Green Bay took over on downs, and Dallas never touched the ball again.

By the letter of the law, it can be argued it was the right call. Bryant did go to the ground. The ball did move.

However, while speaking with Bleacher Report, Emanuel strongly disagreed with one portion of Steratore's ruling. A portion of the ruling that changes everything. In Emanuel's opinion, in reaching for the end zone Bryant did make "an act common to the game." And in doing so, Bryant made the catch.

"In my eyes as a professional receiver," Emanuel said, "the process of the catch is over once I'm reaching out for extra yardage. Once he transfers that ball to a position where he's reaching out, he has established possession. It's a catch.

"As a wide receiver, we're not going to reach out the ball to gain extra yardage or try to score if we don't have possession. We're taught to use two hands to gain possession of the ball, and then, once we have possession, we can reach out and stretch for extra yardage. He caught it, juggled it a little, got possession and reached out to score. That's a catch. That's a football move."

Emanuel's take jibes with what an incredulous Bryant told reporters after the game: "C'mon man, I think it was a catch. They took it away. ... I wasn't off-balance. I was trying to stretch for it and get in the end zone."

It was the worst-case scenario for the NFL. Emanuel in 2000 all over again. The catch rule the NFL had fixed was as broken as ever.

It sent the NFL back to the drawing board.

When the 2015 iteration of the NFL rule book was released, the catch rule had once again been overhauled. Gone was any mention of an "act common to the game."

What's "becoming a runner," you ask? Well, the NFL attempted to clarify that when announcing the change. The league also tried to clarify exactly when a player is "going to the ground."

Proponents hailed the changes as finally giving a reasonable explanation as to what the heck the "process of a catch" is. Critics claimed that all the NFL did was reword the same confusing rule to make Steratore's call appear retroactively correct.

One thing's clear: The new rule didn't assuage the controversy.

  

State of the Catch

The NFL's rule change didn't do much to stop controversial calls on the field, either. Per Adam Stites of SB Nation, there were at least five instances involving contested rulings on receptions in November of last season alone.

Despite transferring the ball to his other hand and turning upfield, officials ruled Arizona Cardinals tight end Darren Fells had not become a runner in a Week 10 game against the Seattle Seahawks.

Despite clearly having the ball in his possession and getting both feet in bounds, officials ruled that Michael Crabtree of the Oakland Raiders did not complete the process of the catch against the Detroit Lions one week later.

Criticism of the rule came from all circles. There were players like Megatron:

Coaches like Houston's Bill O'Brien, per Seifert, weren't shy about their distaste for the rule either:

If it was a catch in my backyard when I was nine years old in Andover, Massachusetts, then it's a catch. Right? If me and my buddies are there and we caught the ball, and this guy says, "What do you think? Yeah, he caught it. It didn't hit the ground." [Then] it's a catch, right? I think we make it too complicated now. That's just my opinion.

And the fans...their comments I can't include here.

There were suggestions galore on how to "fix" the catch rule as well. As Drew Magary of Deadspin wrote after a controversial non-catch by Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman last October, former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher recommended simplicity in defining a catch:

  1. You have secured clear possession of ball with either one hand or two. No juggling. We hate jugglers.
  2. You have both feet down, or the standard one knee/one elbow/one buttcheek down.
  3. That's it.

According to Seifert, Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh offered up a similarly pared-down notion of what constitutes possession.

Emanuel echoed Harbaugh's sentiments that in some respects replay has created as many problems as it has solved where catches are concerned.

"When you slow it down and put in instant replay," Emanuel said, "and you try to analyze a catch frame by individual frame, I think you take something away from its essence. From the craft and trade of receiving. From the game. I don't think football was meant to be slowed down and evaluated. I think you have to evaluate a catch based on the naked eye."

Now, instant replay isn't going anywhere, but that doesn't mean the NFL has turned a blind eye to potential improvements and further changes to the catch rule. Nor has the league given up on trying to explain and/or sell the rule's current version to players and fans.

"This past year at the Super Bowl," Emanuel said, "the NFL had a catch/no catch seminar. Myself, [NFL Vice President of Officiating] Dean Blandino and [New York Jets wide receiver] Brandon Marshall took part. It basically identified the differences between a catch and a non-catch and explained what would constitute a catch in our eyes as receivers.

"I thought that was great. I think the general public needs more of that to really be able to understand how and why officials are ruling the way they're ruling."

Emanuel told Bleacher Report he still sees room for improvement, both in enforcement of the existing rule and by refining that rule with input from players who catch passes for a living.

"I think the individual interpretations of the rule have created a lot of inconsistencies over the years," Emanuel said. "It's just been overcomplicated. A catch in one official's eyes isn't in another's, and I think that's what's so hard for players and fans alike to understand."

Mike Pereira, the former VP of officials for the NFL who now breaks down controversial plays for Fox Sports, agreed. "The most confusing part of the game right now: What is a catch and what is not a catch?" Pereira said last September, per CBS Sports' Ryan Wilson. "Even I, in my role, I'm not even confident anymore in knowing when someone has possession long enough."

There was some hope, after another season of controversial calls and outcries from the media last year, that the NFL was finally going to effect real, lasting change to the catch rule. A "catch committee" was formed last December, with the intent to examine the rule and ensure it's both properly written and consistently enforced.

Or at least that's what Commissioner Roger Goodell said the goal was on SiriusXM NFL Radio, via Kevin Patra of NFL.com.

The problem, at least in Emanuel's eyes, is that the NFL continues to ask the wrong people what constitutes a catch.

"It's funny to me that I was never asked to be a part of the catch committee," Emanuel said, "since in some ways I was who started this whole ball rolling. Let professional receivers give their interpretations of what they believe a catch is. What they've always been taught a catch is."

Now, in fairness, there was a former wideout on the catch committeeJames Thrash, who played 12 seasons with the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles. However, of the six members of the committee, Thrash was the only receiver.

Only one other member (San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt) ever caught a pass in an NFL game. Just one other member (former side judge Tom Finken) ever officiated a game.

It's a curious composition for a council on catches, especially when, as USA Today's Jarrett Bell reported, players like Bryant offered to lend their expertise and experience. "They need to invite me," Bryant said. "Tell them they need to call me, so I can have my input."

Well, not only was there no invitation, but as Judy Battista of NFL.com wrote, Blandino indicated there wouldn't be a change to the rule. "Nothing has been finalized, but my sense is that there will be no change to the rule or tweak of the language. We will certainly continue to use video to educate in this area."

That's what we got—rather than a rule change, a video of Blandino explaining the unexplainable.

Which brings us to today, where in many respects it feels like we're right back where we started back in 1999—still unsure why what appears to be a catch is not.

For most, the issue is a rule that's become so complex and convoluted that it's unenforceable. Some, such as Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals, per Kahler, think the key lies in simplifying the rule—to effectively undo most of the changes that have been made in the 21st century.

"There are too many rules, too much gray area, too many judgments the refs have to make. It needs to be simpler," Fitzgerald says. "The Dez Bryant catch against Green Bay should have been a catch. He had the ball and was turning upfield to try to advance the ball. That's a catch."

Then there are those, Emanuel included, who feel the rule itself isn't the problem. Yes. it's complicated—but it's the arbitrary interpretation of those complexities that are causing all the problems.

Whatever you believe, one thing can't be disputed: The problems regarding the NFL's byzantine/bizarre/busted (pick whichever one works best for you) catch rule aren't going away. In the short term, the league has either given up on making changes or decided that any publicity is good publicity. That complaints about catches mean people are talking about the game.

So we can look forward to another season of confusing explanations from officials, exasperated players and outraged fans.

In that respect, as Bert Emanuel, Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant and many others can attest, the catch rule hasn't evolved that much at all.

 

Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.

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