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It’s a question fans have debated for years: What’s the hardest thing to do in sports? Hit a baseball? Shoot par in golf? Score a goal in ice hockey? Drive a race car? Now, there’s another possibility: interpreting the catch rule in football.

The challenge is greatest in the NFL, as evidenced by several high-profile plays in recent seasons that have led to head-scratching, outright outrage and several past and probably future rulebook changes. Still, the question persists: What’s a catch?

As John Branch of the New York Times wrote, “Where once the catch was football’s version of obscenity — we know it when we see it — it became a play to be dissected from all angles and the slowest possible speeds.”

In other words, paralysis by analysis.

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“That’s a good way to put it, but I don’t think the rule is all that complicated,” explained Rogers Redding, CFO national coordinator of football officials. “I think the fact that we can slow everything down now and see a blade of grass up to a gnat’s eyelash has made it more difficult to understand.”

The advent of replay as an officiating tool and advances in technology have helped fuel the debate. “I would say the catch/no catch is in the top two or three for reviews, instant replays and stoppages of the game,” Redding said. “The big ones are scoring plays. Did the ball break the plane of the goalline? Was the ball fumbled? And catch/no catch.”

But as Redding noted, “sometimes it’s all (of those situations) on one play.”

Add the remarkable talents of today’s athletes and you have a mix that often results in confusion and controversy.

Although when it was introduced, replay was not universally embraced by officials, it has become their best friend. “I used to tell the men, ‘Look, if you make a mistake on the field on Sunday afternoon and it’s corrected, you’ll feel a lot better than me making a phone call to you on Tuesday and chewing you out because you blew the call,’” said Art McNally, NFL director of officiating from 1968-91. “Replay has been a help to the officials because the real, real tough catch can be ruled complete or incomplete. That’s the beauty of replay.”

The catch/no catch rule continues to be a hot-button topic among fans, players, coaches and administrators. In fact, the NFL convened a gathering of former and current receivers last winter to discuss the league’s catch rules and to determine whether the rule language needed to be tweaked.

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“We had two groups come in,” said Dean Blandino, NFL vice president of officiating, at a meeting of NFL owners in March. “(We invited) former players Cris Carter, Tim Brown, Randy Moss, Steve Largent and Chad Lewis. And we reached out to current players. Jordy Nelson joined us. And then we had a group of former head coaches, front office people and game officials.

The consensus was the rule was adequate (although the 2016 NFL rulebook does include new language that attempts to clarify the rule). “We have to continue to use video and show examples and teach and educate, not just for the media and fans but the coaches and our players and game officials,” Blandino said.

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Big Games, Big Calls

One of the NFL’s most famous pass plays, involving Tampa Bay receiver Bert Emmanuel in the playoffs following the 1999 season, resulted in a rule change. The St. Louis Rams were leading, 11-6, with 51 seconds remaining when Tampa Bay quarterback Shawn King hit a diving Emmanuel for an apparent 12-yard gain on a second-and-23 play. However the play was reviewed by referee Bill Carollo. When he noticed that the ball made contact with the turf, Carollo overturned the call. Following two incomplete passes, the Rams took possession and ran out the clock.

“Jerry Markbreit was my replay person, probably the most respected official in the country, and he stopped (the game),” Carollo recalled. “We talked about it and it was clear-cut the ball touched the ground. We ruled it as a trap, that it touched the ground.”

If the same play happened today, Emmanuel would be credited with a catch as the NFL changed the rule before the next season. “From that point on, we allowed the ball to touch the ground, but you had to maintain control,” Carollo explained. “We said ‘OK, if this play happens again, and he doesn’t lose control, we’re going to give him a catch even though it touched the ground.’ So that caused the first rule change and we’ve been trying to tweak what a catch is ever since.”

The controversy surrounding that overturn quickly became personal. Following the contest, Carollo and Markbreit received telephoned death threats. Carollo had to take his children out of school for a few days.

“It was controversial but we were comfortable with that decision,” Carollo said. “To the credit of the NFL, they made a rule change. They thought it probably would be better if that type of play is a catch.

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“We were pretty strict … don’t let it hit the ground,” he continued. “Now we’re letting it hit the ground, but don’t lose control. Now we’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt if we feel you’re a runner. That’s true judgment. You can say common sense, but it’s all in the eyes of the beholder. Did he really have it long enough?”

Still another memorable play came in the 2006 NFL playoffs, when the Pittsburgh Steelers upset the Indianapolis Colts. With 5:26 remaining, Troy Polamalu made an apparent diving interception of a Peyton Manning pass, tumbled with it and got up to run. As he rose, Polamalu juggled the ball, but he recovered and was credited with a catch. Colts’ coach Tony Dungy challenged the call. Referee Pete Morelli overturned the call via replay and the Colts maintained possession.

Catch-This-If-You-Can-QuoteThe following day, the NFL announced that Morelli should have let the call on the field stand. Mike Pereira, then the league’s vice president of officiating, said in a statement, “(Polamalu) maintained possession long enough to establish a catch. Therefore, the replay review should have upheld the call on the field that it was a catch.”

Unfortunately, rule changes did not prove to be nirvana. Early in the 2010 season, Detroit’s Calvin Johnson appeared to score the winning touchdown late in a game at Chicago. Johnson leapt, grabbed the ball and came to the ground in the end zone. As Johnson rose, the ball slipped out of his grasp momentarily and replay overturned the call.

A play in the 2014 playoffs is still being debated. Dallas receiver Dez Bryant made an acrobatic play to seemingly catch a pass inside the Green Bay one yardline. But upon rolling over onto his chest, the ball eluded Bryant’s hand. Once again, replay changed the call from catch to no catch.

“When you go to the ground to make the catch you have to hold on to (the ball) throughout that entire process,” Blandino said. “When Dez hits the ground with his left arm, the ball hits the ground.”

A Definite Definition?

So exactly what is a catch?

“The easiest way I can describe the rule is control plus two feet plus time,” Blandino said. “Once we get there (control plus two feet), then we get into the gray area of time.”

The concept of time first showed up in the rulebook in 1938, it was clarified in 1942 and it’s been the basic foundation of the rule since, he explained. “The rulebook definition of time is ‘have the ball long enough to clearly become a runner.’ So what does that mean? That means you have the ability to ward off, avoid contact by a defender and advance the football. That was previously defined as ‘performing an act common to the game.’

“What the time element does is allow the onfield official to rule the bang-bang play incomplete and be more consistent,” Blandino said. “And what we refer to as a bang-bang play is control plus two feet and contact that occurs simultaneous or almost simultaneous (with arrival of the ball). The key part of the rule allows for greater consistency on the field because slow motion replay distorts that time element on the field. Now we’re debating, ‘Did he have it long enough or did he not?’”

High school’s definition of a catch was tweaked in 2013 to address a situation in which a player with a grasp on the ball was pushed or carried out of bounds before coming to the ground. But even with that change, it’s a far simpler rule.

According to the NFHS rulebook, “A catch is the act of establishing player possession of a live ball which is in flight, and first contacting the ground inbounds while maintaining possession of the ball or having the forward progress of the player in possession stopped while the opponent is carrying the player who is in possession and inbounds.”

If you’re thinking that it takes someone with an advanced physics degree to rule on catches, take comfort in knowing even those close to the game aren’t 100 percent certain. Carollo, who is the coordinator of football officials for a consortium of collegiate conferences that includes the Big Ten, gets a small dose of satisfaction when he asks for coaches’ opinions of controversial plays.

“I always take those tough plays, put them on video,” Carollo explained. “I give them the same angle that the covering onfield official has and tell the coaches, ‘OK, you vote. Tell me, is this a catch? Is this a touchdown?’ And they go, ‘Whoa, this is really tough.’”

In his meeting with NFL owners, Blandino admitted as much. “We’re ultimately going to have plays that look like a catch but isn’t by definition of a rule,” he said. “And most often, those are the plays in which a receiver hits the ground with the ball, bobbles it, then it eventually squirts loose.”

Last year, apparent touchdowns involving the Bengals’ Tyler Eifert and Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman were ruled incomplete because they lost a grip on the ball as they were going to the ground. Both calls caused uproars. Eifert’s touchdown was overturned on a fourth-and-one play from Baltimore’s two yardline when he lunged for the goalline. The ball broke the plane of the goalline, but he lost the ball when he hit the ground.

“When we talk about going to the ground, again, it’s control plus two feet plus time,” Blandino said. “If I don’t have that while upright and I’m going to the ground, the standard becomes, hold on to the ball when you land. 

Catch-This-If-You-Can-End-Zone“If he’s not a runner before going to the ground,” Blandino continued, “the requirement becomes, again, survive the ground. So if you’re not a runner prior to going to the ground in the process of making that catch, you must maintain control when you land.”

Carollo agreed. “That’s one of our most difficult calls — understanding exactly when the player transitions from a receiver to a runner,” he said. “It sounds simple. You know what a runner is when he’s going up the middle (on a running play), but (on a pass play) I’m saying there’s a split second of time when you’re not a receiver anymore and now you become a runner.”

“There are many times when a ruling on the field will stand, but we’re not making it a definitive declaration that it’s either a catch or not a catch,” Blandino explained. “We’re saying the evidence doesn’t allow us to make a definitive ruling.”

More Than Catch/No Catch

Making the catch/no catch rule even more difficult to understand is its correlation to another key rule: targeting.

“That’s an important point,” Carollo said. “Everyone loses sight of that. You’re always going to be a receiver and you have to hang on to the ball, but if you catch it, turn and make a football move, change your direction, reach for the goalline, reach for a first down — something other than the process of the catch — we can put you into a runner category. The problem is, if we transition you from a receiver to a runner you lose your protection for targeting (for a high hit).”

“This rule is directly tied to the defenseless player rule,” Blandino added. “So the amount of time required to gain possession is the same amount of time you’re protected as a defenseless receiver. If we shorten that time to gain possession, we’re shortening the time the player is protected from hits to the head and neck area.”

You might say that’s another catch in the rules.

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