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The NFL’s new catch rule means we can enjoy football — and great catches — again

For years, the NFL’s terrible catch rule robbed the game of excitement. No more.

Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Green Bay Packers Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Hallelujah! The NFL catch rule is no more. Well, technically there’s still a rule. It’s just an updated version of the rule that makes sense and can be enforced without causing headaches and weekly backlash.

Contrary to belief, the newly changed NFL catch rule wasn’t complicated at all, and it also wasn’t poorly enforced by the officials. The rule was just garbage and it’s hurt the image of the NFL.

It insulted our intelligence as football fans. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said regarding the definition of (it rhymes with corn), “I know it when I see it ...,” we know what a catch is. Lastly, we should be rewarding excellent efforts to catch the ball and score points. Instead, for years, we took those points away.

Under the old rule, you basically had to catch the ball, have it not move at all in your hands despite whatever it was your body was doing, including going to the ground, and you weren’t allowed to stretch the ball over the goal line. After that came making a “football move,” which was just an idea.

You had to at least get three feet down and then hold the ball for 27 seconds and hand it to the official. Or something like that.

The genesis for the controversy over the catch rule is thought to be the Calvin Johnson non-touchdown catch in 2010. We all know the play. Johnson clearly catches the ball, gets two feet down, then goes to the ground while holding the ball with one hand like a loaf of bread. The ball hits the ground as Johnson is getting up, and it’s eventually overturned from a game-winning touchdown to an incomplete pass.

My editor extraordinaire pointed out to me the first time a catch ruling caused an uproar was the 2000 NFC Championship Game between the St Louis Rams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Burt Emanuel seemed to haul in a big catch as Tampa was driving down late in the game, trying to score to head to the Super Bowl. As Emanuel laid out to catch the ball and appeared to bring it in, the ball moved ever so slightly in his hands. It was reviewed and over turned. It was a terrible call. It was a catch. It cost the Bucs a chance to win the game and head to the Super Bowl.

More recently, and more infamously, we have the Dez Bryant non-catch against the Packers in the 2014 playoffs. Bryant caught the ball, took multiple steps, and appeared to be reaching the ball out towards the end zone. It was ruled an incomplete pass.

This past season in Week 15, Steelers tight end Jessie James appeared to haul in a game-winning catch in a crucial game against the Patriots.

James caught the ball, leaned towards the end zone, broke the plane, but the ball hit the ground and moved ever so slightly. It was ruled incomplete. We all know James caught it. He had possession and made a football move. Should have been a catch. Instead of discussing a fabulous ending to a great game, we were again stuck discussing a rule.

In an effort to change the catch rule to fix these issues, NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron revealed the new guidelines for a catch. The new rule was approved by owners on Tuesday by a 32-0 vote.

  1. Control
  2. Two feet down or another body part
  3. A football move such as: a third step, reaching or extending for the line-to-gain, or the ability to perform such an act.

Oh look, a simplified rule that we all understand and can be easily enforced. The first two points are the same as usual, but it’s the third bullet point that has changed. It seems the NFL is finally going to acknowledge that a football move can exist within the catch rule.

So Bryant caught the ball, so did James, Johnson, and Emanuel.

The NFL gets some grief, and rightfully so, for being too slow to adapt or change. It might have taken many years for the catch rule to be changed, but I’m glad it has. We can now move on and enjoy some touchdowns!