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Monday Morning Hangover: NFL Must Clean Up Its Incomprehensible Catch Rules

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 19, 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

Deciding whether a receiver caught a football should be more like looking at pornography and less like playing Dungeons & Dragons. 

Determining a catch should be straightforward and instinctive. It should be intuitive and a little visceral. It should not require cross-indexing, haggling, consulting thick rulebooks or trying to mesh two or more contradictory sets of definitions.

By now, you have seen Golden Tate catch a pass, turn into the end zone, take a step or two, cough the football up after a strip by Kyle Fuller, then fall to the ground as James Anderson hauled in what looked like a reception-turned-interception.

Your gut told you that was an interception. The many borderline touchdowns you watched this season told you that was an interception. A close reading of the rulebook even suggests an interception, but you don't need to consult a rulebook.

You are an adult, and you know an interception when you see one bounce from a receiver's hands into a defender's hands.

But referee Walt Coleman overruled the interception call on the field and declared the play a Lions touchdown. The Lions eventually won in overtime by a 37-34 final. The margin of victory included a touchdown that looked like an interception to everyone but Coleman, people going out of their way to defend Coleman and Lions fans who have seen about 900 calls like these go the other way in recent years and aren't going to make waves after a 1-5 start.

You probably also saw Emmanuel Sanders make a sprawling catch for the Broncos with 20 seconds left in a tie game against the Browns, get up to run for a touchdown (despite apparently being down by contact), fall to the ground in the end zone in pain, then try to sprint back up the field because the Broncos were out of timeouts.

You may even have noticed that Sanders stepped out of bounds while climbing to his feet after the catch. You could probably imagine myriad calls on the play: time expired, clock stopped for injury, clock stopped because of the step out of bounds, maybe even a touchdown somehow.

The only call that seemed unlikely was an incomplete pass. Yet that was the call: Some strange combination of a part of the football brushing the ground while Sanders rolled and a wiggle against his belly as he rose to his feet was enough to erase the catch entirely.

Did Sanders actually catch the ball? Who knows? The harder the NFL tries to define a catch, the more confusing the simple act of determining whether someone caught a football becomes.

David Richard/Associated Press

Now, the typical Hangover reader is an upstanding citizen who has never seen pornography and has never, ever played Dungeons & Dragons (and, heaven forbid, has never tried to do both simultaneously). But we have all heard the phrase "I know it when I see it" when applied to naughty movies or pictures. That phrase was used by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964, back when the government was deciding whether to throw the creators of adult materials in jail instead of making them wait until 11 p.m. or so to air the stuff on pay cable.

Stewart was hailed as being simple and direct about a subject for which over-technical definitions were bound to prove counterproductive. Work too hard to define something as subjective and complex as "pornography," and you are likely to legally outsmart yourself, banning photos of Michelangelo's David from history books while allowing the VHS tapes your creepy uncle kept under the bed to be sold to minors at convenience stores due to some loophole.

The NFL needs a Potter Stewart to come and bring some common sense to the reception rules.

Every borderline catch—and there are many every week—turns the simple thrill of watching an exciting play into the tedium of trying to figure out whether the elf ranger killed the ogre in Dungeons & Dragons. The elf was using the plus-one Sword of Smiting. But the ogre was wearing enchanted armor. But the elf gets a morale bonus for fighting in a sacred forest. But the ogre gets damage-reduction on piercing weapons and should have been granted 25 percent cover for fighting behind a tree stump.

If you are wondering, people who enjoy D&D ignore large chunks of the thick rulebook and go with a mix of die rolls and instincts: They know a slain ogre when they imagine one. NFL officials are experts who probably would have great instincts if they were allowed to use them. They probably know a catch, an incompletion and an interception when they see one.

Back in training camp, an officiating expert met with a bunch of reporters during a Saints scrimmage. He explained to us that the "football move" no longer existed. Darn—and we were just beginning to imagine we knew what it was.

The receiver had to become a runner capable of defending himself while in full possession of the football to complete a catch, he explained. That sounded like a stricter standard than "football move," and it was.

The takeaway from the session was that it would be harder to make a catch this season on a borderline play than in the past. A few of us posited and pantomimed a series of catch scenarios—I think I was lying on the ground cradling my cellphone as a make-believe football in my elbow at one point—and we were told that nearly all of our What if the ball bounces out of a kangaroo's pouch into Odell Beckham Jr.'s hands hypotheticals were non-catches.

SB Nation @SBNation

The NFL still can’t figure out what a catch is: http://t.co/J32Twa62at http://t.co/5eWPbDkPhy

OK, that makes sense. So Tyler Eifert's fumble in the end zone after an apparent touchdown in Week 3 was ruled an incomplete pass. But Calvin Johnson's fumble while diving for a touchdown against the Seahawks in Week 4 was a fumble (with a separate bad call grafted onto the end of it) because he had clearly become a runner.

The strict rules negate Emmanuel Sanders' catch Sunday: A "when in doubt, rule it out" concept makes it easy to sweep any case of a ball wiggling against the ground or briefly popping in some strange direction into the "incomplete" bin.

As for Tate: I got nuttin'. Neither does Mike Pereira, who knows more about these matters than any of us.

Mike Pereira @MikePereira

We've looked at that play 10 more times, and find it hard to believed based on the current guidelines that he was a runner #CHIvsDET

NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino explained on NFL Network that Tate had clearly established himself as a runner because he was about to take his third step when the ball came loose.

I have watched the play 50 times and still cannot see that almost-finished third step. There is certainly no "incontrovertible evidence" of it.

It appears Coleman felt Tate established himself as a runner, enforcing one interpretation of one rule, and decided this borderline decision was close enough to "incontrovertible evidence" to overturn the ruling on the field, obliterating both the language and intent of a rule that is supposed to supersede the other rules.

Blandino then went with it by making hocus-pocus gestures with his hands and conjuring up a stride that Tate was possibly almost about to make.

The ogre gets a saving throw because you chose to use your dexterity modifier instead of your strength modifier because you chose a finesse weapon and ogres get an extra modifier to their armor class...

It was bad enough when no one understood pass interference, roughing the passer or any of a dozen other confusing penalties with complicated exceptions and codicils. As it now stands, announcers, referees, officiating experts, sportswriters and everyday fans are left completely perplexed about calls that appear obvious to the naked eye.

There is nothing exciting or fun about discovering the exception to the exception to the rule is being enforced, especially when it is turning an apparently great defensive play into a gift for the offense (or vice versa).

Mike Pereira @MikePereira

Clearly the most confusing part of the game right now, determining whether it's a catch or not after turning... Needs to be looked at. #NFL

If the catch standard is strict, fine. Make it uniformly strict. And let officials make judgment calls instead of consulting the Dungeon Master's Guide and coming away with something magically ridiculous.

Turning an interception into a touchdown is like putting boxer shorts on a Renaissance statue. We may not know every word of the rulebook, but we know dumb calls when we see them, and we are tired of seeing them every week.

How to Remain Undefeated

A quick primer on how the NFL's unbeatable teams are getting it done.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Carolina Panthers

Gambling that the best secondary of this generation will continually fail to cover the tight end who represents the Panthers' only downfield passing threat, even when in range for a game-tying field goal in the final seconds.

Counting on a late Seahawks failure has become one of the safest victory strategies in the NFL.

Cincinnati Bengals

Playing solid, balanced football in all three phases of the game and receiving minimal credit for it because they are the same old Bengals; how can you seriously buy into this; blah blah blah...

Denver Broncos

Kicking, defense, kicking, kicking, kicking, the one good play per week left in Y.A. Tittle's arm, overtime, defense, kicking.

Green Bay Packers

Allowing 503 passing yards is hunky-dory. Just don't allow 506 passing yards.

New England Patriots

Watch highly motivated, relatively high-caliber opponent pour its heart and soul into doing everything it possibly can to beat you, nod silently, win.

Stock Watch 

Landry Jones to Martavis Bryant: Rising

Don Wright/Associated Press

You just knew when Sunday started that the Jones-to-Bryant touchdown combination would be the talk of Week 6, didn't you?

Jones, a star at Oklahoma and a fourth-round pick three years ago, was held in such high esteem at the end of training camp that the Steelers signed Michael Vick off the street and promoted him above Jones on the depth chart when Bruce Gradkowski (whom Jones probably should have already leaped over anyway) got hurt.

Bryant, a promising big-play-or-nothing prospect in 2014, returned from suspension last week but was not activated for the Monday night win over the Chargers because of a minor knee injury.

Jones replaced the banged-up Vick in the third quarter against the Cardinals and connected with Bryant for two touchdowns in a 25-13 upset, one an eight-yarder after a Cardinals fumble, the other a short slant that turned into another 88-yard chapter of Bryant's highlight reel, which in Bryant's case is more of an "everything he does" reel.

Jones was 8-of-12 overall for 168 yards, so don't buy the jersey just yet. He succeeded with a scaled-back playbook against an opponent that game-planned for a left-handed scrambler and some Wildcat goofiness.

The only quarterback who matters to the Steelers is Ben Roethlisberger, who may graduate from seven-on-sevens to full-squad drills this week if he's on the usual timetable for a return from the MCL sprain he suffered three weeks ago in St. Louis. Either Vick or Jones can get the Steelers through the Chiefs next week. After that, the Bengals come to town, and the Steelers want to finally see what their full battery of offensive weapons looks like.

Surly Veterans Returning from Injuries: Steady

Steve Smith Sr. caught seven passes for 137 yards and a late touchdown in his return from a back injury, but it was not enough to stem the Ravens' decay into irrelevance in a 25-20 loss to the 49ers.

Marshawn Lynch carried 17 times for 54 yards and a touchdown in his return from a hamstring injury, but it wasn't enough to stop the Seahawks from emphatically declaring their 2015 mediocrity in a 27-23 loss to the Panthers.

Lynch did act as the middle man on a nifty Russell Wilson-Ricardo Lockette double-pass touchdown in the third quarter, but the Seahawks celebrated by taking the entire fourth quarter off.

Smith and Lynch should form their own franchise: the Grumpy Old Men. Philip Rivers could be their quarterback. Maybe some ex-49ers would join them on defense. They might not be better than the Ravens and Seahawks, but they would be much more fun to watch.

Bills' Health Insurance Premiums: Rising

Bill Wippert/Associated Press

EJ Manuel is a 36-year-old journeyman in a 25-year-old's uniform. He's the gritty run-around guy who makes a play here and play there but has the accuracy of an extended weather forecast and about 15 percent less athleticism than you (or he, or his coaches) think he has.

Manuel ended an impressive first drive with a rushing touchdown, then settled in for a long afternoon of three-and-outs.

When he found the end zone again late in the first half, he threw behind Sammy Watkins. Watkins caught the ball but hurt himself adjusting to the slightly errant throw. With Percy Harvin sidelined by a lingering case of being Percy Harvin, the Bills offense was back to relying on Charles Clay, Chris Hogan and Chris Gragg, who I think is the guy who plays Agent Coulson in all the Marvel movies.

LeSean McCoy did run hard and smart, with 90 yards and a touchdown. But defensive tackle Kyle Williams was carted off in the fourth quarter. Williams is a four-time Pro Bowler who has only missed one game since 2012. The injuries are piling up while the Bills spin their wheels.

There were reports that Manuel might seize the Bills' starting job with an impressive performance. Manuel did lead a couple of late drives that made the 34-21 final look a little bit closer. That's not the kind of game that unseats a starter, but every smart journeyman knows that padded statistics help keep you in the league for an extra decade.

Coach Campbell's Tough-Guy Tactics: Rising

The Dolphins came to play against the Titans. Cameron Wake recorded four sacks and forced two fumbles, while Lamar Miller and others combined for 180 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 38-10 win.

There are two ways to interpret the Dolphins victory.

One: It can be seen as a win by the team with much greater overall talent than its opponent and a triumph by veteran defenders like Wake and Brent Grimes against an opponent with a rookie quarterback. It's also a victory that just happened to coincide with the short-term boost that often comes with the arrival of a new boss.

Or, Two: It can be seen as an emphatic endorsement of Dan Campbell's 1970s tough-guy tactics. (Campbell was three years old when the 1970s ended, but you get the idea.) Olivier Vernon's roughing penalties, one of which knocked Marcus Mariota out of the game with a knee injury, could be a sign the Dolphins are committed to playing harder if not smarter.

Be worried if Campbell tries even more old-school coaching techniques after this week's modest success: medicine balls, three-hour practices in pads and ordering Ndamukong Suh to get a job driving a cab in the offseason. That would make for an awesome reality series but a big step backward after Sunday's small step forward.

Germs: Steady

"These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things—taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. ...But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow." — from War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

J.J. Watt is not a Martian, so everyday illnesses cannot end his rampage. They can slow him down, however.

Watt, listed as questionable with an illness for the Jaguars game, had just two tackles and one tipped pass Sunday. He ripped away from his blockers but flopped at Blake Bortles' feet on one play. On another play, he collapsed the entire left side of the Jaguars line, but the effort of clobbering three blockers wore him out, so he was slow to get to his feet as Bortles scrambled away.

Teammates Whitney Mercilus (two sacks) and DeAndre Hopkins (10-148-2) picked up the slack in a 31-20 Texans win over the Jaguars.

A careful reading of Watt's "illness" performance shows there wasn't that much slack. He still played fairly well. Germs made Watt mortal, but not so mortal that Luke Joeckel could consistently block him.

Tune in next week when the Jaguars lose to 11 extras from Stephen King's The Stand.

Jamaal Charles Replacement Brigade: Falling

Andy Reid's first-half strategy with Jamaal Charles out for the season was to not possess the football at all.

The Chiefs mixed three three-and-outs with five- and six-play drives that yielded 23 and 18 yards in the first half, respectively, retaining possession for just 12 minutes and four seconds. You don't have to worry about replacing the focal point of your offense if you are always playing defense.

Jeremy Maclin suffered a head injury with the game close in the second half, and Reid could not simply order Alex Smith to throw to Travis Kelce on every single play. Eleven players were targeted for passes by Smith...who thought the Chiefs even had 11 skill-position players?

Albert Wilson, who (unbelievably) becomes the No. 1 receiver if Maclin misses significant playing time, caught a 42-yard slant-and-go touchdown. Folks like James O'Shaughnessy, Demetrius Harris, Anthony Sherman, Chris Conley and Jason Avant all got involved. Or tried to get involved: The Chiefs only scored 10 points in a 16-10 loss, after all.

As for the running game, Charcandrick West fumbled late in the game, and neither West nor Sherman could gain one yard when needed on a late drive into the red zone.

If anything happens to Kelce, Smith will have to prepare to start pooch-punting on third downs.

Performance Bonuses

Mysterious Touch Bonus

We interrupt these performance bonuses for the worst fake punt in human history. Someone make that "needle scratching off the record" sound. Vzzz-zzzt!

The Colts ran their punt unit on the field on 4th-and-3 in the third quarter. Then, they ran everyone toward the right sideline except for wide receiver Griff Whalen, crouching as a center, and safety Colt Anderson, lined up behind him as a quarterback waiting for a snap.

Oct 18, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Griff Whalen (17) is tackled by New England Patriots defensive back Brandon King (36) during the NFL game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Patriots were initially baffled by the formation, with players gesturing and trying to figure out assignments. But the Colts just stood in their freaky formation until the Patriots felt comfortable that they had everything covered. Then the Colts stayed in that formation a little longer.

Were they angling for an encroachment penalty? Perhaps at first. But then Whalen snapped the ball to Anderson. Sort of.

Whalen looked like he had not snapped a football since the Pop Warner league. He just levered his forearm between his legs. Anderson took the snap and leaned in the general direction of a Patriots defender, of whom there were several.

Had Whalen and Anderson snapped the ball about 10 seconds earlier, they could have sprinted forward for a few yards and a first down. By the time they actually did it, they looked like the kids the teacher forced on stage to recite the Gettysburg Address even though they hadn't memorized it.

Andrew Luck @FauxAndyLuck

20 minutes after that #Colts play and I'm still like http://t.co/SNavFGtNA9

Whalen and Anderson share this week's bonus, but it's a booby prize for them and the Colts coaching staff. Beating the Patriots is hard enough without going out of your way to do something obviously idiotic.

Offensive Line Bonus

The Jets linemen earn their second bonus of the year for holding the Redskins sackless and helping Chris Ivory, Zac Stacy and others rack up 221 rushing yards in a 34-20 victory over the Redskins.

The Jets line has allowed just two sacks all season. Let's hear it for D'Brickashaw Ferguson, James Carpenter, Nick Mangold, Willie Colon, Breno Giacomini and the general concept of trash-picking linemen from the Seahawks, who cannot tell a decent lineman from a tight end who can be transformed into an awful lineman.

Special Teams Bonus

Let's reach back to Thursday night and give this one to Michael Mauti and Saints special teams coach Greg McMahon.

McMahon called a stunt on a punt-block attempt that the Falcons weren't ready for, and Mauti knifed through to make the play. Mauti was in the stands when Steve Gleason blocked a punt against the Falcons in the Superdome grand reopening in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. Gleason was in attendance when Mauti did it Thursday night.

And somewhere on Earth, U2 and Green Day were congratulating themselves for something.

Unsung Defensive Hero Bonus

Cameron Wake isn't exactly "unsung," but he has sometimes been overlooked and taken for granted during the annual Dolphins dramas and paradigm shifts.

Weston Kenney/Associated Press

Wake ended a pair of Titans drives with strip-sacks early in the game, when the score was close and the Dolphins offense was making its own set of sloppy mistakes.

Wake might lose Defensive Player of the Week honors to Karlos Dansby, who made a pair of highlight-reel interceptions off Peyton Manning. But Wake's four sacks helped stir a team that slept through September.

Honorable mention goes to Bashaud Breeland, the only Redskins player who deserves a game ball (or possibly even a paycheck) after Sunday's loss. Breeland intercepted a pass, forced a fumble and recovered two of them; poking balls away from Jets receivers' hands were about the only Redskins highlights (except for a blocked kick in garbage time). Breeland is the only healthy player in a devastated cornerback corps. He may not be great, but he has done everything possible to rise to his occasion.  

Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown Bonus

Allen Hurns has slipped onto many fantasy rosters this season in the old Cecil Shorts III role: He's the Jaguars receiver you pick up hoping he catches a lot of passes in ugly games that you don't bother watching.

Sure enough, Hurns was quiet for most of the afternoon in the loss to the Texans but caught an 11-yard touchdown with 4:32 to play to cut the Texans' lead to 31-20. Lest the touchdown be too meaningful, the Jaguars missed the extra point.

Shorts, by the way, caught 4-63-0 against his former team. If you started Shorts hoping for a revenge game against the Jaguars, you were disappointed. Also: Who the heck does that?

Fantasy Leech Bonus

The entire first half of the Lions-Bears game was Leech City.

Lance Moore was the chief of police of Leech City, and Tim Wright was the comptroller. Both scored touchdowns of little use to anyone counting on Calvin Johnson or Golden Tate. But Jeremy Langford got elected mayor of Leech City by lining up at fullback and scoring a one-yard touchdown on an inside give while Matt Forte played tailback and decoy.

Last Call

A final look at the sights and sounds of Week 6.

Replace Your Divots

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Justin Tucker missed a 45-yard field goal against the 49ers because his foot fell into a hole so deep that you expected Bugs Bunny to pop out and say something about a left turn at Albuquerque.

Is it that hard to grow grass in San Francisco? We're not going for a "wacky tobacky" joke here—that intro is going to be hard enough to push through editorial—but all the San Francisco residents on the Hangover greeting card list always brag about all the locally grown organic food that is available in the kinds of stores that only sell microwave frozen burritos with 2004 expiration dates on the East Coast.

Maybe the York family should hire some of those Bay Area artisanal growers to plant kale or barley on the Levi's Stadium field. It would be safer for the players and more attractive for the fans and television viewers.

Then again, with the 49ers' luck, the growers would retire after one year and leave the field fallow.

The Battling Bickersons of Boom

Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor were seen arguing after Greg Olsen's game-winning touchdown for the Panthers. The discussion probably went something like this:

CHANCELLOR: Olsen was your man.

SHERMAN: No, Olsen was your man.

CHANCELLOR: You're overrated.

SHERMAN: No, you're overrated.

CHANCELLOR: You're overpaid.

SHERMAN: No, I'm overpaid.

CHANCELLOR: No, I'm overpaid!

SHERMAN: If you say so, Doc.

CHANCELLOR: What? No. Our problem is that Jimmy Graham doesn't block.

SHERMAN: Great idea. Let's pin this on the Graham trade!

CHANCELLOR: Yep. (Under his breath.) Olsen was your man.

SHERMAN: What? No.

And so on for the rest of the week.

Reverse Lou Gehrig

Peyton Manning said in his postgame press conference that the breaks just haven't been going his way recently.

"I won't be going to Vegas for my bye week," he said. "I'm not feeling real lucky right now."

Manning did have a little bit of bad luck against the Browns. One of his three interceptions appeared to roll across both of Ronnie Hillman's arms before Dansby snatched it and tiptoed up the sideline for a touchdown. Demaryius Thomas dropped a couple of easy passes.

Aaron Josefczyk/Associated Press

Yep, a bad break here and a bad break there, and next thing you know: 10 interceptions in six games. Poor, unlucky Peyton Manning.

YOUR TEAM IS 6-0 THANKS TO A DEFENSE THAT PROVIDES ONE-THIRD OF YOUR TOUCHDOWNS AND A KICKER HAVING AN MVP SEASON, PEYTON. YOU ARE PLAYING LIKE A DESICCATED HUSK OF YOUR FORMER SELF, BUT YOUR TEAM HAS A THREE-AND-A-HALF-GAME LEAD IN THE DIVISION STANDINGS. NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR ABOUT YOUR BAD BREAKS.

Anyway, it's a good thing Manning isn't going to Vegas. If he tried to shoot craps, someone would intercept the dice and run them out of the Bellagio for a pick-six.

Prop Bet Props

Al Michaels learned that a prop bet was offered on how many times announcers said the word "Deflategate" during the Patriots-Colts telecast. So Michaels said the word Deflategate four times in rapid succession when coming out of a commercial break, as For the Win's Chris Chase noted, pushing the bet into the "over."

Hangover is happy to participate with licensed casinos in any prop-betting opportunities that allow Hangover to have complete control on whether the wager pays off. Simply offer a number on a Hangover-themed topic (typos, Jay Cutler jokes, Dungeons & Dragons references) and make the wager as public as possible.

We promise not to peek and put any action on ourselves. Promise.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL, and Hangover is not at all happy to participate in any such thing.

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