Weekend Winner: NFL Rule 8, Section 1, Article 4

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In sports, everyone is a winner—some people just win better than others. Like the "going to the ground" rule, which cost the Lions a victory yesterday and which comes from a part of the rulebook apparently written in crayon.

You've probably seen Calvin Johnson's overturned catch a few hundred times now, and you'll probably see it a hundred times more before the day is out. The conventional wisdom is that pedantry won the day; that, like it or not, the officials reached the correct conclusion based on a strict interpretation of the rules. Specifically, says Mike Pereira, the NFL's former vice president of officiating, Rule 8, Section 1, Article 4:

A play from start to finish is a process. When you go to the ground, even after you've caught the ball, you have to maintain possession.

The rule states: If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball after he touches 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, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.


That's all well and good, but the Big Lead's Jason Lisk smartly points out that this particular clause is surrounded by others that either obscure it or undermine it altogether. First, there's the definition of a completed catch:

A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:

(a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and (b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands.


And then there's this, from the same section:

End Zone Catches. If a player catches the ball while in the end zone, both feet must be completely on the ground before losing possession, or the pass is incomplete.


Johnson got two feet, a hand, and an ass cheek on the ground and still maintained what I'd call control of the ball. That's (apparently) a catch by the simple definition of a completed pass; that's (arguably) a catch even by the rule Pereira cites; and that's (almost certainly) a catch by the clause governing end-zone receptions, which exists for no other reason than to clarify a scenario just like this one. It's not that this "going to the ground" rule sucks; it's that the whole body of rules pertaining to catches is ambiguous enough to justify pretty much any whim of the officials. The Lions got jobbed.

Calvin Johnson and the Going-to-the Ground Rule [The Big Lead]
The N.F.L.'s Worst Rule: ‘Going to the Ground' [New York Times]
The biggest Week 1 calls [FoxSports]
Like it or not, NFL rulebook says it's not a catch [Detroit News]