Here we are again, enacting one of the NFL’s more recent and stubborn traditions: Spending Monday morning yelling about a great game ruined by the terrible catch rule. This one, which decided home-field advantage in the AFC, feels a little different than some of the other catch controversies this season, in that I understand why the call was made as it was, and accept that it was called according to the rule. In a way, this makes it that much worse—it makes it clear that it’s the rule itself, and not its application, that needs to change.
Jesse James looked like he had caught the go-ahead touchdown pass with 28 seconds remaining. He had both hands on the ball. He had two feet down. He had a knee down. He had a hip down. All before the ball crossed the plane of the goal.
But the ball shifted and spun when James’s elbow and hands hit the turf. He did not “survive the ground,” as referee Tony Corrente so memorably put it in explaining, after a long, long review, why the call was reversed and ruled incomplete. Corrente said afterward to the pool reporter that “that’s the terminology that we use in the officiating,” and indeed, SVP of officiating Alberto Riveron uses the phrase “survive the ground” in his video explanation of the call:
(In the video Riveron also says, “as we can see here, Roethlisberger completes a pass to James,” but never mind that.)
Here’s a particularly relevant portion of the rulebook that defines possession:
A player who goes to the ground in the process of attempting to secure possession of a loose ball (with or without contact by an opponent) must maintain control of the ball until after his contact with the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, there is no possession. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, it is a catch, interception, or recovery. 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.
The NFL rule for defining a completed pass is 654 words, and directly references another rule that defines possession and runs an additional 750 words. The NFL’s definition of a “catch” has been so heavily legislated as to be unrecognizable from how any human being, in any other context, would define a catch. The imposition of instant replay has made things even more convoluted, forcing officials to magnify as millimeters and milliseconds to evaluate a full-speed action in a high-speed sport. “Possession” feels like one of those things you know when you see, and which simply wasn’t meant to be seen or evaluated in slow motion.
So why not simplify? In a 2016 MMQB article in which NFL receivers, to a man, admitted that they have no idea how the league defines a catch, the 1982 version of the catch rule is recalled. Compared to the monstrosity we have today, it’s so streamlined:
[A receiver] must control the ball throughout the act of clearly touching both feet, or any other part of his body other than his hand(s), to the ground inbounds. If the player is hit causing the ball to come loose simultaneously while clearly touching inbounds both feet, or any other part of the body except the hand(s), there is no possession. If, when the ball comes loose, there is any question whether the above acts are simultaneous, the ruling shall be no possession.
The rule has since been extended and granulated in order to spare officials any responsibility of judgment, but in doing so the league has turned a catch into something separate from its English-language definition. By rule, Jesse James didn’t catch that football, even though we all saw him catch the football. The rule, you might then allow, sucks.