Best part of proposed NFL catch rule: the words 'survive the ground' aren't involved

Eric Adelson

ORLANDO, Fla. — Dez Bryant caught the ball.

Calvin Johnson caught the ball.

Jesse James caught the ball.

After much (much, much, much) further review, the NFL has completely rebooted its catch rule, and a newly proposed version basically reverts to what should have been obvious all along.

It’s just a little bit late for the Cowboys, Lions and Steelers.

OK, it’s a lot late.

“We wanted to take the great catches and make them catches,” said head of officials Al Riveron.

It’s crazy that the NFL has been in business for all these decades and just now there’s a recasting of a fundamental football play. The question is: Will this just be another catch rule until something else goes haywire? Will there really be a standard for the sport that lasts?

There is reason for hope on this spring day.

“I think the Dez Bryant [play in the 2014 playoffs against Green Bay] was the start of us realizing something needs to change,” said Rich McKay, who chairs the NFL competition committee.

It was actually before then, way back in 2010, when Calvin Johnson used the football to break his fall in a regular season game in Chicago. To the eyes in the stadium and at home, it was a very strange reversal. It was clear that Johnson had made the reception.

It was also pretty clear that Bryant made the catch at Lambeau Field. As did James, who reached across the goal line against the Patriots in December only to lose the ball. But after several seasons of tweaks, it became impossible to know what was a catch and what wasn’t. Two touchdowns in the Super Bowl that looked like Eagles scores were sent to the replay review with millions of fans having no idea if they were what they seemed to be. Watching a close call became a near-hallucination: Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?

“Every time, we tried to add language to cure a situation,” said McKay, “and that did not serve us well.”

What the league got wrong during these years was giving the ground way too much power over the catch, and giving the replay booth even more power. When you stare at a pixelated version of a reception for minutes on end, the play starts to look different.

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James (81) loses his grip on the football after crossing the goal line on a pass play against the New England Patriots in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter of an NFL football game in December. (AP)

Riveron, the current head of officials, says there will be more reliance now on the referees on the field. That’s the best thing he could have said. He even brought in current-day officials to help him re-legislate the controversial calls from the past. Part of the trouble was that former head of officials Dean Blandino didn’t have prior on-field experience. Riveron does.

He says there will be more deference to the initial call going forward “unless we see something that really stands out.” That’s as it should be, as the referees on the field have gotten most of these plays correct the first time.

So what’s the proposed new rule (which is expected to be voted on this week)? It’s three-fold:

1) Control
2) Two feet down or another body part
3) A football move such as: a third step, reaching/extending for the line-to-gain, or the ability to perform such an act.

The words “survive the ground” aren’t involved. “That’s out. No mas,” Riveron proudly said. Gracias a Dios for that.

Of course there will be a play this season (or several) that challenges this new language. What is a “football move?” What is a “reach?” What is “the ability to perform such an act?” That’s when the controversy is sure to swell again. When you have millions of people watching a play and all the relevant replays, and then many of those same people venting about it on social media, you’re going to get resentment and you’re going to get blame. The new catch rule sounds good in the quiet of March; but there will be rage amid the rancor of January.

Humans make errors and, as we’ve learned too well, humans relying on machines make even more errors. The best hope for the new rule is not perfection – that’s impossible – but a process that is understandable to the professionals on the field and the fans at home.

That kind of outcome is just a little more likely now.

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