NFL's Catch Rule Continues to Confuse Players and Fans Alike

Rob Goldberg@TheRobGoldbergFeatured ColumnistOctober 18, 2015

Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate (15) reaches for the ball after Chicago Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller (23) knocked the ball away after Tate crossed the goal line for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)
Duane Burleson/Associated Press

Everyone is still confused about what constitutes a catch in the NFL, and it even seems the officials are making it up as they go along.

Every week features a new controversy in this league, but the one that keeps coming back is the debate over complete and incomplete passes. Many of the arguments have been scenarios where the receiver appears to have control but not long enough for the play to stand. However, the most recent bizarre call was the other way around.

In the first half of the Week 6 battle between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, Matthew Stafford threw the ball into the end zone for Golden Tate. The receiver had his hands on the ball for a brief moment before it popped into the arms of the defender.

This play was eventually reviewed and called a touchdown:

The call was a major surprise based on what fans have seen in past years. Many watching at home had to agree with ESPN's Matt Bowen:

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While Tate did have two feet on the ground, it did not appear he had full control of the ball. This goes against the numerous recent examples of players losing the ball—even after crossing the goal line—before losing it and being ruled incomplete. 

This would-be touchdown from Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman was called back in Week 5:

However, NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino explained the difference:

With the ball remaining in the air the whole time, the ground never came into play in the ruling. This takes away consideration for the well-discussed "Calvin Johnson rule," which was popularized after this catch was controversially overturned and called incomplete.

Former VP of Officiating Mike Pereira took to Twitter this past summer to explain the latest rule changes more clearly (h/t CBS Sports):

A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regain control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.

In essence, the ball can't touch the ground unless you have complete control.

When Dez Bryant seemingly made a miraculous catch against the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs last season, it was ruled incomplete because the ground caused the ball to shift in the receiver's hands:

This type of play had been seen multiple times already in 2015, with Freeman being the most recent. It seemed fans had finally gotten a grasp that plays that looked to be complete were in fact incomplete and anything close would be ruled against the receiver.

Then the Tate play happened, and we are all left wondering again. He didn't seem to have any more control than similar incomplete calls, especially this play involving Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert from earlier this season:

In that situation, Eifert seemed to make the catch and cross the goal line before eventually losing the ball. Tate crossed the line but wasn't nearly as secure with the football.

If the ball went straight to the ground, it's possible the refs would have called it incomplete based on the explained rules, but that would only mean catching the interception wound up hurting the Bears. In any case, this play creates even more controversy over the most highly debated ruling in the league.

Amy Trask of CBS Sports offered perhaps the best solution:

At a certain point, common sense should come into the equation. It appears as though NFL is just overcomplicating a simple situation.

There likely won't be any major changes to the rules before the end of the 2015 season, but a little consistency from the officials would be a great place to start.

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for more year-round sports analysis. 

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