The NFL’s competition committee is currently discussing possible changes to the league’s catch rule, which is commonly interpreted by replay officials throwing tea leaves and chicken bones against a wall. According to committee member and Giants owner John Mara, the group is in agreement that the rule needs to be simplified.
Mara spoke to ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, and intimated that the committee is looking to tweak the rule in ways that would make Dez Bryant’s infamous non-catch from the 2014 playoffs an actual catch. From ESPN:
“I think where we are unanimous,” Mara told ESPN on Tuesday, “[are] plays like the Dez Bryant play in Green Bay, going to the ground, [and] the Calvin Johnson play from a couple of years ago. I think all of us agree that those should be completions. So let’s write the language to make them completions.”
Encouraging, right? Everyone who saw that Bryant play get overturned in 2014, or Johnson’s even more egregious case in 2010, understood at a gut level that something in the NFL’s rulebook was rotten. But before you get too excited about the committee’s desire to define what were clear catches as catches, read what Mara had to say about a Steelers tight end Jesse James’s overturned touchdown catch from this season:
“The Jesse James play, I think should be a completion,” Mara said, “but I’m not sure we’re unanimous on that. But plays where guys seem to make the catch and then make a football move with it, I think most of us agree those should be completions. Now it’s just a question of coming up with the right language.”
Watch the Bryant catch again, and then watch the James catch. Does one really seem more catch-like than the other to you? Is James’s non-catch demonstrably different from the Zach Ertz touchdown that helped the Eagles win the Super Bowl?
My guess is that the committee is unanimous on one play and not the other simply because “Dez caught it” has become a rallying cry for people who are fed up with the NFL’s transformation into an epistemological exercise. And the fact that there is a difference of opinion on those two plays does not bode well for whatever new version of the catch rule the committee will ultimately recommend.
The problem here is the NFL’s continued insistence on defining and legislating the near-infinite combinations of bodily movement that can occur during and after a catch. Sure, throw out the “surviving the ground” portion of the current catch rule, but then you’re still left with the equally opaque “become a runner” qualification, which is just a remix of the infamous “make a football move” language.
As Barry noted back in December, these terms were all tossed into the rule book in an effort to save referees from ever having to make any sort of judgment call when deciding what is and isn’t a catch. That’s what referees are there to do, though, and I’d much rather have them making case-by-case decisions on what constitutes a catch and possession than applying inscrutable rule-book language to frame-by-frame video clips. If the committee really wants to help, it will scrap the current rule entirely.