When is a player “going to the ground” in the process of making a catch?
The NFL rulebook spells it out: “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.”
Sometimes that determination is black and white. A player diving to catch a pass is clearly “going to the ground.” A player catching the ball in stride and racing into the end zone is clearly an upright receiver.
Then you have Brandin Cooks’ game-winning touchdown catch on Sunday.
On the New England Patriots’ final drive against the Houston Texans, Tom Brady threw a beautiful pass to Cooks, who leapt, caught the pass, and tapped two toes in the end zone. Everybody cheered when he stuck the landing for a perfect 10.0. Bloop! Touchdown.
Cooks then bounced up into the air and went horizontal, continuing his action of “going to the ground.” If he had just bounced up and landed on his feet again, no problem. He had “dotted the i,” so to speak.
By diving up and out, he continued the process and created a whole other action for officials to rule on.
Yes, even jumping up can be a continuation of going down to the ground.
"He's established possession,” NFL head of officiated Al Riveron told SB Nation on Monday. “While he has possession, he has two feet down. The last part is, is he able to perform another common act? In this situation, he must complete that part of it or he’s still going to the ground."
Riveron referenced “common act” because, in the end zone, Cooks can’t necessarily “become a runner.” The better question is to ask, did he walk away from the toe-tap? Clearly not.
Since Cooks didn’t complete a common act like running, walking or stepping, he then had to hang onto the ball throughout his fall. And no, a “hop” is not considered an act common to the game.
The veteran Cooks did in fact maintain possession of the ball, and the Patriots escaped with the win.
Some Texans fans will point to the fact that the ball moved when it hit the ground. This does not negate a catch. Cooks clearly still controlled the ball with his hands, despite the ball shifting a little. If he had lost his grasp on the ball, this would have been incomplete. Because he maintains the ball in his possession, a little movement of the ball doesn’t negate the completion.
A note in Rule 8.1.3 states this clearly:
If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered a loss of possession. He must lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession.
The officials on the field, and the replay team at the NFL offices in New York, all got this right. They just had to work a little harder than usual to do it.