This post was first published on March 28, 2018, after the NFL changed its catch rule. We’re looking back at it this week as part of our “What If” package at SB Nation NFL.
This decade, the NFL hasn’t really made sense when it came to what does and doesn’t constitute a catch. Prolific plays from All-Pro receivers like Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant were wiped out for failing to “survive the ground.” Game-changing touchdowns like Jesse James’ were declared incompletions, affecting everything from meaningless regular season games to high-profile playoff showdowns.
That’s set to change this season. The NFL owners unanimously passed the competition committee’s proposal to clarify how officials judge completions, and it’s aimed at defining a catch as, well, something that looks like a catch.
After much deliberation & input from coaches, players, @NFLLegends, & club executives, the @NFL Competition Committee will recommend the following language simplifying the catch rule at the Annual Meeting next week. pic.twitter.com/hJwH5YYBRK— Al Riveron (@alriveron) March 21, 2018
That’s a refreshing change, but it comes too late for a handful of teams. So what if this simplification had been employed before Calvin Johnson could even throw the absurdity of the NFL’s catch language into the public eye?
The following well-known calls all had repercussions, varying in scope. Here’s how things would have gone differently if these had been ruled catches:
The biggest game: Dez Bryant’s playoff non-catch against the Packers
Bryant’s sprawling fourth-and-2 catch appeared to give the Cowboys new life late in a Divisional Round game at Green Bay in January 2015. Dallas trailed, 26-21, with just over four minutes to play when Tony Romo found his top wideout near the left sideline for a gain that appeared to set up first-and-goal inside the Packers’ 1-yard line. Instead, officials saw the ball shift after Bryant had already taken two steps and negated the play, handing control over to the home team.
It was a fatal blow for the Cowboys, and while it serves as the highest-profile application of the league’s weird catch dynamics, it may not have made a difference. Even if Dallas scores in its next four plays, that still leaves Aaron Rodgers, the 2014 NFL MVP, with somewhere between two-and-a-half to four minutes to rally his team to either a game-winning field goal (if Romo can’t convert a two-point conversion to make it 29-26), a game-tying field goal, or a game-winning touchdown.
While it may have been crushed by the officials’ momentum-swinging ruling, the Cowboys’ defense didn’t offer much of a reason to think a stop was coming. After all, all Dallas had to do to ensure another last-gasp offensive possession was force a Packers’ punt with 4:06 left on the clock and a pair of timeouts. Instead, Green Bay drove to the Dallas 23-yard line before kneeling out the clock.
The biggest impact: Jesse James’ non-touchdown against the Patriots
Last season, New England and Pittsburgh battled for control of the AFC on a blustery December day at Heinz Field in a game that lived up to its heavyweight fight hype. The Steelers took an eight-point lead into the final half of the fourth quarter, which set the stage for a traditional Tom Brady comeback. He needed just 70 seconds to drive his team 77 yards and take a 27-24 lead, but he was too masterful; his clutch drive left the home team with 56 seconds to cobble together a game-winning counterstrike.
One 69-yard JuJu Smith-Schuster catch-and-run set up a Jesse James’ touchdown that appeared to give Pittsburgh the lead with just 28 seconds left in the game, but the catch rule struck again.
While the Steelers still had three downs to either gain 10 yards for a game-deciding touchdown or kick a tying field goal, Ben Roethlisberger would throw an interception on third down that sealed this one for the Patriots.
Though this was a regular season game, it had a major impact on the 2018 NFL playoffs. New England and Pittsburgh finished tied atop the AFC with identical 13-3 records, but the Pats’ dramatic win in Week 15 served as the tiebreaker that gave them the No. 1 seed. That meant their playoff path started with an underwhelming Titans team — and not the Jaguars buzzsaw that lit up the Steelers for 45 points in the Divisional Round. Assuming James’ catch stands (and Brady can’t dial up his magic with 28 seconds left and two timeouts), Pittsburgh likely advances to the AFC title game — and possibly farther.
The trendsetter: Calvin Johnson’s non-touchdown against the Bears
Calvin Johnson played his role as a Lions’ legend to a T. He played masterful football, set franchise records, lost more games than he won, and retired at a young age after having his love of the game ground down to a nub. One such event that may have helped soften his resolve — and it introduced NFL fans to the modern catch rule as we knew it.
In 2010, Johnson pulled down a deep heave from (checks notes) Shaun Hill to give his Lions a go-ahead touchdown with 24 seconds left, but an official review negated the score after ruling the All-Pro wideout didn’t control the ball “through the entire act of the catch.” Breaking the plane of the end zone didn’t matter — just securing the ball.
Hill would throw two follow-up passes to Johnson to no avail. The Lions would lose and the Bears would take the first step toward the most successful season of Jay Cutler’s career. Chicago finished just one game ahead of the Packers in the NFC North that season after splitting their regular season matchups. If the Bears had lost to the Lions, a series of tiebreakers would have given Green Bay the division crown. Ultimately, that title didn’t matter; the Packers rose up to beat the Bears in the NFC Championship before moving on to win Super Bowl XLV.
The one negated by ... Andy Dalton? (eventually): Kelvin Benjamin’s non-touchdown against the Patriots
While Bill Belichick has mostly owned the AFC East in his 18 seasons as New England’s head coach, division foes typically find a way to keep his teams honest with one or two upset wins each season. Buffalo, standing with one foot in the playoff race at 8-6, was primed to make a statement at Gillette Stadium last December. The Bills trailed 13-10 with just seconds to go before halftime when Tyrod Taylor hit Kelvin Benjamin for a toe-tapping touchdown in the corner of the end zone. Suddenly, it looked as though the 11-point underdog was set to take the lead with them into the locker room.
But, since this is an article about the awful impact of an unclear catch rule, it wouldn’t stand. Officials ruled the ball shifted in Benjamin’s hands as he fell to the turf, and Buffalo had to settle for a field goal. This might not have mattered that afternoon, as New England went on to score the game’s final 24 points, but the ruling ultimately cost the Bills some much-needed momentum in one of the NFL’s toughest settings: a meaningful December game in Foxborough.
Fortunately for Buffalo, its playoff drought wouldn’t be extended because of a maybe scenario in Week 16. The Bills sneaked in to the playoffs thanks to a final week rally from Andy Dalton’s Bengals, who upset the Ravens with an 11-play, 90-yard drive to knock Baltimore out of the postseason and push Buffalo to the Wild Card Round for the first time since the 1999 season.
The scariest one: Zach Miller nearly loses his leg only for the refs to tell him it wasn’t good enough
Not much about Chicago’s lost 2017 season would have changed with a refined catch rule, but it would have been a moral victory for one man. After a better than expected 3-4 start to the season, the Bears headed to New Orleans with the opportunity to put themselves in the NFC Wild Card race. Zach Miller hauled in what looked like a touchdown pass that would have put the Bears down 14-10 to the Saints as halftime approached.
Instead, Chicago settled for three points and never truly dug itself out of that hole. There was a period late in the game where a Miller touchdown would have made a difference, however, as our own Adam Stites points out.
Who knows how the Saints would’ve played with a 14-10 lead instead of a 14-6 lead. But over the next few drives, New Orleans tacked on a field goal and Chicago got a touchdown.
Instead of a 17-17 tie, Chicago trailed 17-12 and had to play with a sense of urgency in the final minutes while hunting for a game-winning touchdown.
Instead, rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky had an even bigger hurdle to clear against the Saints’ rejuvenated defense. A win for New Orleans eventually helped it beat out Carolina on a tiebreaker for the NFC South title. The loss didn’t mean much in the grand scope of things for the Bears — they finished 5-11 on the season in a rebuilding year. But taking away a legit-looking touchdown from a guy who just dislocated his knee is pretty low.