NFL to propose fix to catch rule that nobody understands

Corey Clement Philadelphia Eagles
Corey Clement of the Eagles scores against the Patriots during Super Bowl LII. –AFP PHOTO / Timothy A. CLARY

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After years of confusion about what constitutes a catch — a rule that even the players on the field never seemed to comprehend entirely — the NFL is poised to release a proposal to fix the rules around receptions and remove some controversy from the game.

The proposed changes, which were first reported by The Washington Post, are too late to fix several controversial non-catches over the last few seasons, including ones by Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions in 2010, Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys in 2014 and Jesse James of the Pittsburgh Steelers in a game last season that essentially decided home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. If successful, the changes would eliminate an issue that has been a consistent headache for the league recently.

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In an interview with The Post, Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, confirmed that the competition committee would recommend a slate of changes that include eliminating the “going to the ground” rule as well as the rule stating that slight movement of the ball in a receiver’s hands negates a catch.

“We worked backward,” Vincent told The Post. “We looked at plays and said: Do you want that to be a catch? And then we applied that to the rule.”

He added, “And we’ll go back to the old replay standard of reverse the call on the field only when it’s indisputable.”

The frustration has been widespread, with Steve Bisciotti, the owner of the Baltimore Ravens, criticizing the rules in an interview on the Ravens’ website in February.

“This whole thing is stupid,” Bisciotti said before adding, “Start over. It’s just ridiculous.”

The rules on catching a football remained essentially unchanged from the early days of the game until 1982, when a provision was added that the receiver must possess the ball “to the ground” — an alteration made to placate owners and players who were frustrated at the number of fumbles that had been created when a receiver caught the ball while diving. The rules have been reworked several times since and have inspired countless debates about the meanings of the terms “football move” and “surviving the ground.”

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One of the most hotly debated non-catches belonged to James, who appeared to have a winning touchdown reception that would have most likely given Pittsburgh the home-field advantage they needed for an easier path to the Super Bowl. Instead, the play was negated because the ball shifted in his hands as he made contact with the ground in the end zone. James’ lack of a “football move” before he came down resulted in a call that was correct by the letter of the law, but wrong in spirit to many observers.

With the proposal from the competition committee expected to come this week, it would be ready for review at the annual owners meeting next week in Orlando, Florida. Last month John Mara, an owner of the New York Giants and a member of the competition committee, told ESPN that he expected the group would be “unanimous” in terms of wanting to change the rules for a catch. There was also a push from Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has reportedly made the catch rules a major focus of the offseason.