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The NFL’s catch rule, explained in a 90-second read

This might be the most confusing rule in the NFL.

What is a catch? It’s been three years since officials ruled Dez Bryant didn’t catch a ball in the Cowboys’ Divisional Round loss to the Packers, and we’re all still trying to get to the bottom of this.

Roger Goodell said in the week leading up to the Super Bowl that the league will evaluate this rule this offseason.

“From our standpoint, I would like to start back, instead of adding to the rule, subtracting the rule. Start over again and look at the rule fundamentally from the start,” Goodell said, via’s Marc Sessler. “Because I think when you add or subtract things you can still lead to confusion.

“These rules are very complex — you have to look at what the unintended consequences are of making a change, which is what the Competition Committee, in my view, does so well and with so much thought.”

But until changes are made, the simple explanation is that it’s a judgment call for officials. Does it look like a catch? Then sure, it’s probably a catch.

But there are specific boxes each reception has to check when a receiver hauls in a ball for it to be ruled a catch. Let’s break them down.

What do the NFL’s rules say?

It’s a catch when a player who receives or picks off a pass inbounds does the following:

  • Gets control of the ball with his hands or arms before the ball touches the ground.
  • Gets two feet or one other body part (other than a hand) on the ground inbounds.
  • Maintains control of the ball after he’s done both of the first two things until he establishes himself as a runner. That has its own specific criteria, according to the rule book:

A player has the ball long enough to become a runner when, after his second foot is on the ground, he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up field, or taking additional steps.

Sounds pretty simple, right? It’s not.

What does “control of the ball” mean?

This is where things start to get dicey.

When a receiver goes to the ground or goes out of bounds after establishing possession, he has to maintain control throughout. Cowboys receiver Brice Butler gave us a textbook example in 2017 against the Giants.

Butler dives for it, gets both hands underneath it as he’s going to the ground, and maintains control throughout the catch.

Here’s what it looks like in a sideline situation, courtesy of Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones.

Jones taps one foot down, then the other, all while pulling the ball securely against his body to establish and keep possession.

Does a player have to control the ball the entire way?

No. If there’s movement before the ball is secured and the ball touches the ground, it’s not a catch. But how much movement is too much? Well, that’s purely subjective. Maybe the ball jostles around a little, but the receiver still has his hands securely under it, it never touches the ground, and then he locks it up. That’s a catch.

Allow Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald to demonstrate. Fitzgerald and Orlando Scandrick are equally entitled to this ball. Fitz saves it from being intercepted and grabs it before it hits the ground. Note how he gets his left hand under the ball and then secures it to his body.

That’s one hell of a catch.

Did Dez catch it?

According to the rules, no.

Bryant does take two steps, but it appears that he’s going to the ground the entire time, meaning he did not establish himself as 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.

This is the part that bit Bryant. When the ball hits the ground, it starts to shift around.

If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.

Bryant did not regain control before the ball touched the ground. That was enough for officials to rule that this one wasn’t a catch.

In this case, there was a lot of ball movement when Bryant hit the ground. But it’s completely at an official’s discretion to decide how much movement is too much and when a player actually gains possession. Because of that, this rule will be controversial until the league finds a way to improve it.

Bad rules the NFL needs to change