Catch-rule ambiguity bedevils NFL

Ryan Wood
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Herm Edwards remembers the exact moment a catch became something other than a catch in the NFL. He was standing on the sideline in St. Louis, dumbfounded. Sixteen years have passed. Edwards still can’t believe it.

Herm Edwards, then-Kansas City Chiefs head coach, watches an NFL football game in Oakland, on Nov. 30.

The situation is frozen in his memory. Fourth down. Less than a minute on the clock. A five-point deficit. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were down to one last play in the 1999 NFC championship game when Bert Emanuel dove to make a spectacular, season-saving catch.

It was a catch. It had to be a catch. The Bucs were granted new life.

So Edwards, an assistant head coach, couldn’t understand why officials stopped the game. He watched them trot over to the replay booth, still confused. A minute passed. Then another. By the time referee Bill Carollo returned to the field, Edwards figured the delay couldn’t be good.

He was right. After further review that evening Jan. 23, 2000, what everyone perceived as a catch was ruled incomplete. Game over. The St. Louis Rams were going to the Super Bowl.

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) is unable to catch a pass against Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields (37) in the fourth quarter in the 2014 NFC Divisional playoff football game at Lambeau Field on Jan 11, 2015.

“That’s when this stuff started,” Edwards told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. “Going down on the last drive, and we felt like Bert caught the ball. They said he didn’t. That became the Bert Emanuel Rule, once they started saying what’s a catch and what’s not a catch.”

The Bert Emanuel Rule is not only alive and well almost two decades later. It has never loomed larger. On any given Sunday, there will come a point when a catch is scrutinized. Questioned. Debated. It remains one of the most polarizing, subjective rules in sports.

The argument is silly. Nothing in football should be more basic than catching the ball. Instead, nothing is more complicated.

‘That was a no-brainer’

Mike McCarthy has seen both ends of the enigma. The Green Bay Packers can’t play a divisional round playoff game without catch-rule controversy.

Two years ago, it was Dez Bryant’s catch that wasn’t a catch. The Dallas Cowboys receiver leapt over Packers cornerback Sam Shields, reached for the goal line as he fell to earth, and the football wobbled ever so slightly when it hit Lambeau Field’s grass.


McCarthy remembered that play as he stood on the University of Phoenix Stadium’s sideline one year later. Larry Fitzgerald had just made a catch that wasn’t, McCarthy thought. The Arizona Cardinals receiver corralled a pass thrown behind him, momentum knocked him to the ground, and the football wobbled ever so slightly when it hit the grass.

This time, the ruling was a completed pass.

“I thought that was a no-brainer challenge,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy dropped the red challenge flag, believing the Fitzgerald and Bryant catches looked identical. He had company. With the replay on loop, NBC color analyst Chris Collinsworth referenced the Bryant play. Certainly Packers fans remembered.

McCarthy watched referee Clete Blakeman trot over to the replay booth. A minute passed. Then another. When Blakeman upheld the call upon his return, McCarthy couldn’t believe it.

“I don’t know what the hell a catch is anymore,” McCarthy fumed after the game. “It’s ridiculous.”

He wasn’t the only one.

“According to the rule,” Packers receiver Jordy Nelson said, “it wasn’t (a catch). He caught the ball going to the ground, and then it hit the ground and moved. So that’s the part that’s frustrating to me. Did he take a lot of steps in that process? Yes, but the rule says if you catch the ball in the process of going to the ground, and the ball moves, it’s not a catch.”

The league has tried to provide clarity over the years. In Emanuel’s day, a football could not contact the ground during the process of a catch. After Emanuel’s potential season-saving catch was taken away, the rule changed so a football could contact the ground, but the ground could not help a receiver gain possession. The difference comes down to millimeters. A nudge of the ball here. The lack of a nudge there.

New verbiage was added before the 2015 season. Instead of a catch being complete once a player made a “football move,” a receiver merely had to establish himself as a runner. The only change was the rule’s explanation, not its application.

Not surprisingly, the adjustment didn’t help. If anything, the playoffs were even more controversial. The catch rule remains as confusing as ever. From general managers down to players, the frustration is real.

“No one knows what a catch is,” said Edwards, an ESPN analyst and former head coach of the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs. “I think the league has done everything in its power to try to get it right, but the problem is this: you have instant replay, and you have people looking at it, at the angle that it happens and all these things. You sit there and watch it unfold, and you don’t know. You really don’t know.

“To me, if it looks like a catch, or it looks like an interception, hey, that’s what it is. To me, it’s that simple.”

Edwards said the catch rule’s ambiguity hurts the game. The damage is easy to see. When a basic element of football becomes so muddled two people can watch the same play and perceive opposite outcomes, there’s a problem.

‘I get confused, yes’

Instant replay is supposed to help. With creative camera angles and high-definition lenses, officials have never been closer to the game. Replay reviews assist in making a variety of calls on an NFL field, but none have been more transformative than the catch rule.

Edwards thinks replay reviews have an inverse affect. Cameras get too close to the action, Edwards said. They open the gate to overanalyzing. When every blade of grass is magnified, the line between catch and no catch becomes blurry.

“Even though the cameras are supposed to help it,” Edwards said, “it’s almost hurting it more. Because every time I think it’s a catch, it’s not a catch. So I’m going, ‘Well, what’s a catch anymore?’ And no one knows.”

The catch rule, Edwards said, can negatively affect a game even when officials get it right. Pace of play has never been more important. In this no-huddle era, offenses are on the line of scrimmage as soon as the whistle blows to end the previous play.

Replay reviews halt the rhythm, Edwards said. Pace of play is compromised.

“When I played,” Edwards said, “there wasn’t all those cameras, but there was never a debate. Either the guy caught it, or it was incomplete. You moved on. You kept playing.”

Edwards appreciates what instant replay brought to the game. Yes, it’s important to get a call right. But at what cost? Too often, Edwards said, a game is stopped when there’s no reason for a replay review.

Edwards remembers how the game was played in 1977 when he entered the league as a cornerback with the Philadelphia Eagles. Replay reviews wouldn’t be used for another decade. There were imperfections back then. Missed calls swung games. But, Edwards said, that was part of the competition.

Edwards said he misses the days before instant replay. Back then, he said, officials were forced to make their calls in real time. On the field. No handicaps. They relied on nothing more than their best judgment. Yes, Edwards said, his team lost games because of a bad call, but they usually evened out.

“There probably was games,” Edwards said, “where it felt like, ‘You know what? We didn’t get the call.’ There were some games where it felt like we got the call. You just play. You know, sometimes not knowing is better than sitting there debating. You know what I’m saying?

“Sometimes, if you just go by what you should see real quick, you go, ‘OK, it’s a catch.’ If it looks like one, you go, ‘OK, it’s a catch.’ Or, ‘It’s not a catch.’ Better than to stop it and, ‘Let’s show this thing 20 times.’”

Sometimes, 20 replays aren’t enough. Stopping the game for an instant review doesn’t guarantee the correct call. McCarthy still doesn’t think Larry Fitzgerald caught the football. Dez Bryant still thinks his was a catch.

The Packers aren’t the only team affected. Sooner or later, the Bert Emanuel rule was bound to go one step further. The NFC championship game? Try altering the outcome of Super Bowl 50.

Carolina Panthers receiver Jerricho Cotchery tipped a pass to himself in the first quarter, finally corralled it as he fell to earth … and the football wobbled ever so slightly when it hit the grass.

It looked like a catch. It had to be a catch. It wasn’t. A replay review reversed the call.

Two plays later, Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller stripped the football from Cam Newton’s arms. Defensive end Malik Jackson fell on it in the end zone. The defining play of Super Bowl 50 never would have happened without Bert Emanuel’s rule. For Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman, the play still stung when he was asked at the combine about the difficulty determining what is and isn’t a catch.

“Is it difficult for you to distinguish what is?” Gettleman shot back. “I get confused, yes. They’re working on it right now. The competition committee’s getting together.”

A search for ‘common sense’

Nelson thinks it should be simple. Of course he does. He is one of the NFL’s finest receivers. For him, catching the football is no different than a math professor solving algebra equations.

Sixteen years after Bert Emanuel, the league’s effort to correct its catch rule continues. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell instructed a committee in December to fix what has become a black eye for the game.

When the committee sought former and current NFL receivers for definitive clarification of what should be a catch, Nelson was an easy choice.

“I told them,” Nelson said, “to catch the ball, hand it to the official, and you know you’ve caught the ball. To me, I think we’re overthinking it too much.”

Those are the easy plays. A replay official’s dream. Nelson knows a catch isn’t always – or even often – that clear. The NFL game is faster than ever. Officials must make split-second judgments.

Gettleman wasn’t the only person at the combine hesitant to lend his voice to the controversy. General managers and coaches treated the catch rule like a hot potato. They passed their answers around, never touching the subject too long.

“I like Dean Blandino,” McCarthy said of the NFL’s head of officiating. “I think his process of what he’s trying to do, I’m definitely in agreement with that.”

After the combine, Blandino defended the rule in an email to NFL Media. The only change will be the rule’s explanation, not its application. More education. New verbiage. Same approach the NFL took last offseason.

What’s the definition of insanity?

Maybe Edwards is right. Maybe the league has done everything in its power to fix the catch rule. But amid the question dodging last week, a solution might have come from a source Packers fans would not expect.

Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians benefited from the catch rule’s ambiguity in January. He has every reason to accept the status quo this offseason, but Arians sees room for clarity. He doesn’t blame instant replay. A decade ago, Arians said, the rule wasn’t nearly this controversial.

Arians said a lack of “common sense” is the missing element.

“Instant replay has gotten so good with the ball moving this much,” Arians said, almost touching his thumb and index finger. “Is it a catch? A guy runs into the wall in the back of the end zone, drops the ball. He’s about to break his neck. It’s not a catch anymore.

“Two feet on the ground and possession of the ball should be a catch.”

On the surface, Arians’ solution has merit. The ground can’t cause a fumble. Why can it cause an incompletion? Maybe two feet plus possession should equal a catch.

Better than the NFL’s most basic play being its most complicated rule. and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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