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The NFL's catch rule is better than you think

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The NFL has done a good job this season of consistently applying its well-found 'catch rule,' even if many fans don't like it.

With so much debate this season about "what is a catch" in the NFL, any conversation about the problems and merits of the league's catch rule need to start with one basic understanding: There has never been and never will be a perfect catch rule that is void of subjectivity and human error. Those elements will always be part of the game, and part of determining a catch, at some level and at some point.

The other tidbit that's important to note before diving in too far is what utter nonsense is the notion that "no one knows what a catch is anymore."

It's become a popular mantra from players, coaches, bloggers, commentators and fans who are frustrated with their perception of a flawed rule they haven't really tried to understand being implemented by people they perceive as flawed officials out to get their team.

Reality is, for 99 percent of the catches in the NFL, the rule very easily covers the bases without dissent, and those officials get it right darn near 100 percent of the time.

"I can show you thousands of catches and incomplete passes this year," Dean Blandino, the NFL's head of officials, told me. "What we're talking about is a small number of high-profile plays where we're debating a subjective element."

It's that all-important 1 percent the NFL needs to get right, and they know it. Not only is the league doing a consistent job of defining and implementing their current catch rule, but the league's current rule gives them the best shot of getting as close to perfect as you're ever going to get.

Understanding the catch rule

The rule has gone through a bunch of iterations over the years. Blandino said the catch rule has been debated for the entire 25 years he has been a part of the league. That debate hasn't been waged by a bunch of guys in a room shooting the shit and pointing fingers at officials. It's gone through a tedious process involving officials, coaches, team executives and NFL reps analyzing tape and scrutinizing the ability of players and officials to do their jobs on the field.

The latest iteration of the catch rule is actually simple and, believe it or not, plenty of people understand it perfectly:

A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player executes a three-step process:

  • secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground;
  • and touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands;
  • and maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has clearly become a runner (see 3-2-7 Item 2).

An additional item makes it clear that if a receiver is going to the ground in the act of completing a catch, he must maintain possession even after he has gone to the ground. This isn't a separate rule, as some have painted it. On the contrary, it makes clear that even when going to the ground the receiver must possess the ball for a period of time.

Simple. Want to complete a catch? Maintain possession and become a runner, or maintain possession through the process of going to the ground. Simple.

It's that third step in securing a catch - "clearly become a runner" - that has so many people pointing to a manufactured inconsistency or lack of clarity.

While I'm no NFL official, when I see a scrutinized play, particularly slowed down in replay, I can predict what the officials' call will be 90 percent of the time because I understand the rule.

To be sure, as with any rule, people will make mistakes. Officials are no different from players: From time to time they drop the ball. Debate will always rage around plays involving some level of subjectivity. Yet between the officials on the field and the replay officials, they have actually done a very good job this season of consistently applying the rule.

Putting the catch rule into practice

One of the examples pointed to over and over by the "no one knows what a catch is" folks was Golden Tate's touchdown earlier this season against the Chicago Bears.

It's a close one, "bang-bang," if you will. And of all the close ones, it might be the closest. Yet because of the rule, the officials ultimately got it right: Touchdown.

Still, Fox's commentator on the game took a stab at the rule and totally fumbled:

"Because he was being contacted by the DB before he went to the ground, he has to maintain possession to the ground."

Bzzzzzzttt. Tate was NOT going to the ground in the act of making the catch, he was a runner who, after crossing the goal line, was then dragged to the ground.

The rules even address that, with this language appearing twice in the league's rulebook:

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 Tate was falling to the ground as he made the catch, then that would have been correct. He wasn't. Touchdown.

Why did the ensuing strip of Tate's ball not matter? Once the ball is in the end zone or crosses a goal line in possession of a runner, it's a touchdown. Anything that comes after that is totally irrelevant. That he lost possession after he was in the end zone doesn't matter one lick. Touchdown.

That Tate play was compared with this Tyler Eifert incompletion, though the two are completely different in the eyes of the rule because Eifert was going to the ground during the process and Tate was not:

This past week some pointed to a fumble by Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen as proof positive that "no one knows what a catch is."

In this case you clearly see Olsen take a couple short steps then turn and make a motion toward an oncoming defender after he has clear possession of the ball. What makes him a runner in this case? Why, the very definition of what it is to be a runner:

A player becomes a runner when he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent.

If you take a couple steps then swing your right arm to ward off a defender ... you're clearly a runner.

The call for a simpler catch rule

Are many fans and players unclear about this rule? Yes. Making matters worse, Fox's paid commentator got it totally wrong, misinterpreting the "going to the ground" part of the rule and building more confusion. He is not alone. Some of the people calling these games on TV have joined the "no one knows what a catch is" mantra.

Just because some people don't know the rule doesn't mean it's a bad rule. Just because some people don't know the rule doesn't mean no one does.

This isn't to say there isn't an open door for subjectivity and human error. Like I said earlier, there will be in every single catch rule.

Still, there is a movement afoot on social media and beyond to "MAKE THE RULE MORE SIMPLE BECAUSE I DON'T UNDERSTAND HOW THEY IMPLEMENT WHAT THE CURRENT RULE IS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

One popular solution has been advocated by former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher and was laid out succinctly by Deadspin's Drew Magary:

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.

Magary's arguments, like so many others, are that 1) catches are exciting and 2) there should be more catches (in addition to advocating for more fumbles). He also says that the current rule isn't simple enough. Though, if you try to read the NFL's lengthy rulebook, it's hard to argue any of the rules in football are simple. The high school football rules book with appendices is 103 pages; The NCAA rules and interpretations book is over 200 pages.

This stuff isn't simple.

Three criteria for changing an NFL rule

Despite the calls for these "simpler" rules from respected people like Magary and Cowher, simplicity isn't remotely the focus of the NFL's Competition Committee.

"Whenever there's a potential rule change we have to consider certain factors," Blandino said. "The first is player safety. Then we have to decide if it is equitable. Finally we have to ask if we're asking officials to do something they cannot do, if we are making their job more difficult."

Examining the catch rule, and the popular "possession and two feet" proposal, through these three lenses is key.

1) Safety

The safety of the players in the NFL, and in football in general, has never been more scrutinized or carried such weight as it does today. There are about a billion reasons for that, and billions more could be coming if the NFL doesn't do something about the safety of the game. Thankfully, they have.

Particularly key to the safety of players is protecting "defenseless players" as much as possible. Players in a "defenseless" position are particularly vulnerable to catastrophic injuries. In its personal-fouls section of the rulebook, the NFL has made it increasingly important that defenseless players be given certain protections. One of the definitions of a defenseless player is pretty pertinent here:

A receiver attempting to catch a pass; or who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a runner.

Ah, look at that! The NFL matching its all-important catch rule with the ever-more-important defenseless-player rule. In doing so the NFL is offering more protections to any players who have not - WAIT FOR IT - "clearly become a runner." The League has taken into consideration its need to protect defenseless players when designing its catch rule. Pretty smart.

Now consider the popular "just make it possession and two feet" rule. If the only opportunity a defender has to break up a pass is in the split-second before the receiver touches the ground or secures the ball, he's going to take that shot. That split second happens to be when a receiver is most vulnerable, "defenseless" if you will. Defining a catch in this way lays out the welcome mat for those most-dangerous hits. If you want to protect defenseless players, you can't make a defender's last opportunity to break up a pass be in that most vulnerable moment.

2) Fairness

The "possession and two feet" rule opens up the opportunity for cheap fumbles (though, to be sure, you can still have them as Greg Olsen did this week). Before the receiver is able to ward off an opponent, and at his most vulnerable, he takes a hit and coughs up the ball. With the current rule it's incomplete; With Cowher's proposal it's a fumble.

Fumbles are marginally exciting, if you enjoy watching officials try to unpile a mess in the middle of the field for 60 seconds. But are cheap fumbles fair?

Consider the spectacular plays that could suddenly go the other direction. Calvin Johnson makes an incredible leaping 40-yard catch over a defender that leaves him outstretched. It's the kind of play SportsCenter will be playing all day Monday. Yet as soon as his second foot hits the ground, an arm comes in and knocks the ball away. A defender jumps on the ball. With the "proposed" new rule that's a cheap turnover.

This incredible play, with a player leaving it all on the line outstretched and with no protection, has now gone from a simple incomplete pass to a turnover.

Fair? No. It's bad enough he won't get the completion out of the play; now, the other team has the ball because a quick, cheap, bang-bang play.

3) Enforceability

Saving the best for last. For Blandino -- and, ostensibly, the NFL Competition Committee -- creating a set of rules that are consistent and able to be executed by the officials on the field is paramount.

"This is strictly about can this rule be officiated consistently?" Blandino said. "Whatever we do, we have to have a rule that can be officiated consistently. And I think we do. What we're debating now is the subjective element."

For some context, it's good to look at the other levels of football.

The NCAA uses a similar rule to that of the NFL, including the mandate to "perform an act common to the game." Yet the vast majority of high schools use something different. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) football rule 2-4-1 says:

A catch is the act of establishing player possession of a live ball which is in flight, and first contacting the ground inbounds while maintaining possession of the ball or having the forward progress of the player in possession stopped while the opponent is carrying the player who is in possession and inbounds.

Essentially: Possession and a foot.

There was a time when I wished all three levels of football - NFHS, NCAA & NFL - used the same rulebook. But one of my mentors, a respected former college official, set me straight earlier this year explaining that every level of football is different and mandates a different rulebook.

As I watch and officiate more and more football from the eyes of an official, I understand exactly what he meant. I haven't officiated an NFL game, but I have officiated high school football and junior college football in Southern California. There is a dramatic difference between the two in size and speed of the players and speed of the game. Just the step from high school to junior college is a huge one.

It makes sense that NFHS would have a more simple rule, with thousands more officials to train and athletes who aren't as big, strong or fast. Watching a high school player attempt a reception, and watching defenders try to stop him, is like watching football in three-quarters speed compared to junior college. It's easier to be consistent and make split-second observations at "high school speed."

Junior college speed? FBS speed? NFL SPEED? About a hundred times more difficult. The NFL officials certainly have the ability to make those key split-second decisions. Their ability is why the NFL has tabbed them for the big-time. But the extra moment of confirmation -- a receiver establishing himself as a runner -- makes it easier to be consistent across games and makes review by replay most able to be consistent.

The proof is in the pudding. Again, that Tate catch was a close one. But the NFL has been able to consistently apply these rules all season long. Whether most fans and commentators want to believe it, the rule is working.

This is what we've got and it isn't going anywhere

Roger Goodell has said he will put together a group of people in and around football to examine the rule. Nothing will come of that, because that's what the NFL has done every year for 25 or more years. He wants to "find a better solution if it's out there." They may tinker some more with the language, but this is about as good as they're going to get.

I understand this is some heady stuff. A lot of people in and around football don't want heady stuff to dictate the league's policies and practices. They want hard hits and big catches. They don't want grey areas or uncertainty. They want black and white.

Yet we will never get black and white. As Blandino told me, there will always be plays that call into question any "catch rule" the NFL puts forward. The League's focus will continue to be on safety, fairness and enforceability.

Until those foci change, the current "catch rule" is about as good as it's going to get. Despite the public's lack of understanding the rule, NFL on-field and replay officials are doing a very good job of implementing it.

Cyd Zeigler is a high school and college football official in Los Angeles. He is also the co-founder of SBNation's Outsports.com.