If Calvin Johnson is indeed retiring, the NFL will be worse off for his absence. But he leaves it a different league than he found it, a much more confusing one for receivers, officials, and fans. Look at that photo above. Through no fault of Johnson’s, we now live in a world where that is not a catch.
Johnson’s legacy should be his highlight reel, and one of the better sports nicknames ever earned, but realistically, it’s not. It’s the Calvin Johnson Rule, which isn’t quite a rule but a reinterpretation and a series of scaffolded legislation, all with the effect—if not the intention—of obscuring the most basic football action.
On Sept. 12, 2010, the Lions’ opening game, Shaun Hill hit Johnson in the end zone for what looked for all the world like a 25-yard game-winning strike. Johnson outjumped Zack Bowman, held the ball with one hand as his knees and butt hit the turf, and planted the ball on the grass as he scrambled to his feet to celebrate.
Watch the catch here, with multiple replays.
The back judge signaled touchdown; a conference of officials overruled him and called it an incomplete pass. The play was reviewed, and referee Gene Steratore came back with an appropriately byzantine explanation:
“The ruling on the field is that the runner did not complete the catch during the process of the catch.”
Before that play, I knew what a catch was. A receiver caught a ball, possessed it, and got two feet down. Simple enough. Johnson thought so too, saying at the time, “I figure if I got two feet and a knee down, to me that is a catch.”
Since then, it’s been seemingly annual controversies, and layered enhancements to the officiating manual to interpret wording that wasn’t particularly precise, but trusted to common-sense interpretation. Now we talk about “making a football move,” and “going to the ground,” and “the process of the catch,” and how the ground can’t cause a fumble but it can cause an incompletion, apparently.
It’s been, frankly, a nightmare. Not just in the big controversies, like the Dez Bryant no-catch controversy from last year’s playoffs, but on numerous plays in every game. The excitement of a game is palpably lessened when a thrilling play requires you to turn to the person next to you to ask if what you saw was indeed a catch, or wait for the inevitable replay review that kills the game’s momentum.
We’re still suffering. Commissioner Roger Goodell said in December he wants “clarity” on defining a catch, and that “we want to find a better solution if it’s out there.”
Apparently, there is not: just today, head of officiating Dean Blandino said the catch rule is not going to be altered this offseason. Instead, the league will focus on explaining the rule. Which it has failed to adequately do for the last six seasons.
Earlier this season, after a Golden Tate juggling touchdown invoking a ruling that should’ve looked an awful lot like Johnson’s “drop,” Johnson said, “I thought I understood the rule. I don’t think anybody does now.”
When we look back on the NFL’s seismic shift to its current pass-happy era, Calvin Johnson’s will be one of the first names we recall. But one of the defining bugs of that offensive upgrade will have his name on it too. Johnson might have been a better player than football deserved.