Why New NFL ‘catch Rule' Proposal Won't End Controversy

NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron unveiled a proposal Wednesday that could potentially simplify the controversial "catch rule."

But unless the league also addresses the way instant replay is used to enforce any catch rule - new or existing - problems will persist.

Riveron solicited input from current and former players, coaches and executives on a stripped-down version of the rule after dissatisfaction with the current legislation reached an all-time high in 2017. If approved by the NFL Competition Committee, unpopular language such as "survive the ground" would be rendered archaic, and 654 words defining a catch would be reduced to fewer than 40.

The committee meets next week, when the following recommendations to determine a completed forward pass will face formal scrutiny.

1. Control

2. Two feet down or another body part

3. A football move such as:

  1. a third step
  2. reaching/extending for the line-to-gain
  3. or their ability to perform such an act

As long as you can ignore the fact that two of the rule's foundations - control and a football move - are abstract ideas and subject to interpretation, it's a fine enough rubric. Erring on the side of incisiveness probably isn't a bad idea when you're talking about a routine human action, such as catching an item.

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Riveron's proposal would seemingly eliminate replay reversals such as Jesse James' non-catch, when a Steelers touchdown was overturned because the football shifted when the tight end lunged to the ground. James' and similar plays where the ball shifted subtly were considered the tipping point for those demanding a rule change.

So, surviving the ground is allegedly addressed, though even that is up for debate. Just wait until officials must rule on whether a receiver "trapped" the ball in the process of making the catch.

There are still millions of tiny movements that can occur in the moments between when a ball makes contact with a person's hands and when possession is established, many indecipherable by the naked eye.

Replay, on the other hand, ensures we will see every minute detail just fine.

The real issue has never been the catch rule. It was imperfect, just as any rule that replaces it will be because two different people can watch slow-motion footage and arrive at two different conclusions as to when control is established. The ball shifts and moves and rolls and bobbles all the time while completing a catch, perhaps intentionally, perhaps unintentionally, which even video doesn't always render clear.

The real issue is the use of these replays to scan for every possible imperfection during the process of the catch, then change what once might've been mundane calls on the field. Until this is addressed, the NFL will only subject itself to more controversy.

Fortunately, the solution is simple. Unless the call is blatantly wrong, replay shouldn't result in a reversal, exactly as the system always intended.

The league could've applied this policy to plays such as James' apparent non-catch, declaring the video evidence as "inconclusive" - which it was, based on the existence of any debate - and upholding the call on the field. Instead, the decision was made to over-litigate the game through the use of replay.

Until the NFL follows its existing rules, a new catch rule isn't going to solve anything.

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