So what the hell is a catch anyway?

This entry was posted by on Wednesday, 18 November, 2015 at

To be kind, the rules for what does and does not constitute a catch are … opaque. It’s worth the attempt to try to understand it, if only to make it easier to yell at the officials when they inevitably get it wrong.

First, below is the dizzying description by Dean Blandino of three different catches, and here is the video of the plays being described.

NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino on NFL Network’s NFL HQ

Monday, November 16, 2015

Cole Wright: A catch, or not a catch, that is the question. So let’s go to the gentleman best equipped to let us know, that’s NFL VP of Officiating, Dean Blandino on line one. Dean, good morning. So as you took a look at that play, when you watch Odell Beckham Junior reel that ball in, what did you see there? Did the officials get this one right?

Blandino: They did get it right, and the rule is pretty clear on this. I know there has been a lot of debate about the rule, but it says you have to have control, you have to have both feet down, and after the second foot is down, you have to have the ball long enough to establish yourself as a runner. And that doesn’t matter if you’re in the end zone or in the field of play. It’s that element of time. Beckham, the second foot hits, and it’s a fraction of a second, maybe a fraction of a second after that, the ball comes out. He didn’t have the ball long enough after the second foot was down to establish possession, that’s why it was overturned to incomplete.

Terrell Davis: Okay, now Dean, let’s go to the Arizona game where they played Seattle, and Darren Fells catches the ball. Back to your point, he does seem like he takes another step where he establishes himself as a runner. Ball comes out, and they call this incomplete. Explain why this was not a catch.

Blandino: That was extremely close and it’s a good question because he definitely had that ball longer than Beckham did. The ruling on the field was incomplete, and we just didn’t feel there was enough evidence to overturn it, that he clearly established himself. The ball was coming out just as he was taking his third step and we never felt that he had clearly established himself as a runner. He did have it longer than Beckham, but the ruling on the field was incomplete, so we stayed with it.

Heath Evans: Deano, it’s Heath. Take me back, I think I’m starting to grasp the understanding of the different portions of the field and the catch, and the steps after. Week 6, Golden Tate, that’s the doozy of this rule. Can you just try to explain to our viewers a little bit more why this was ruled a touchdown and not an incomplete pass, or an interception for that matter?

Blandino: That was ruled a touchdown because Tate, in review, we thought that he had three feet down. So you look at the play, the two plays are different, Beckham and Tate. Tate has clear control, both feet down, and actually takes a third step. Third step comes down, then the ball comes out. And it’s this time element where we’re trying to be as consistent as possible, and it’s, “Did he become a runner?” Beckham did not. Tate, in our view, did. He had it longer, and it’s really that third step that we were looking at, and if you watch the two plays next to each other, you’ll see that there is a difference. But obviously these are all close plays, and that’s why they go to replay.

Got that? If not, here is the actual text from the rule book.

RULE 3, SECTION 2, ARTICLE 7 (2)

PLAYER POSSESSION

Possession of Loose Ball. To gain possession of a loose ball that has been caught, intercepted, or recovered, a player must have complete control of the ball and have both feet or any other part of his body, other than his hands, completely on the ground inbounds, and then maintain control of the ball until he has clearly become a runner. A player becomes a runner when he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent. If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any other part of his body to the ground, there is no possession. This rule applies in the field of play and in the end zone.

RULE 8, SECTION 1, ARTICLE 3

COMPLETED OR INTERCEPTED PASS

A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. 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 (c) maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has clearly become a runner (see 3-2-7 Item 2).

Note: If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered a loss of possession. He must lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession.

If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body to the ground, it is not a catch.

Item 1. Player Going to the Ground. A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. 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 until after his initial contact with 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.

Item 2. Sideline Catches. If a player goes to the ground out-of-bounds (with or without contact by an opponent) in the process of making a catch at the sideline, he must maintain complete and continuous control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, or the pass is incomplete.

Item 3. End Zone Catches. The requirements for a catch in the end zone are the same as the requirements for a catch in the field of play.

The key part of this insanity is “and then maintain control of the ball until he has clearly become a runner”, a phrase that is almost laughably ambiguous. I have always maintained that the rule and its interpretation would be greatly simplified, predictable, and consistent if that phrase were simply deleted: control + two feet down inbounds = possession. No ambiguity there. However, the NFL seems to prefer to put the game in the hands of officials making calls based on unclear English.

So what does the phrase “clearly become a runner” mean? According to the rule book, “A player becomes a runner when he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent.” This is even more ambiguous than the phrase it is trying to clarify. When is a player capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact? When he pulls out his AK47? Who knows? If one follows the discussion by Blandino, this magic moment appears to be equated with the player having made a third step. If that’s the case, why not simplify the description to say: control + three steps = possession? That’s something everyone could understand.

Of course there are also some pretty important exceptions to be considered. In particular, there are the exceptions of where a player is going to the ground and when the player is in the end zone. If a player is going to the ground, according to the rules he does not need to “clearly become a runner”, so no need for that third step. He merely has to maintain control after having initially contacted the ground. It is implicit in the language that this is an instantaneous event, so if the player contacts the ground and maintains control for a microsecond before dropping the ball, it is a possession. I am confident that it will not be called in such a manner on any kind of consistent basis. (Note that there is nothing in the rules stating that the ball cannot touch the ground although we frequently hear TV announcers making that claim. As long as the ball is controlled, it can make incidental contact with the ground and still count as possession.)

As for the end zone situation, the same rules generally apply except that the ball is immediately dead at the instant of official possession. But bear in mind that official possession requires either going to the ground with control or the player must “clearly become a runner” meaning if you aren’t going to the ground you need to make that third step. I would argue that “becoming a runner” in the end zone is a concept that doesn’t even make sense, but that’s the way the rules read.

One Response to “So what the hell is a catch anyway?”

  1. abennihana abennihana

    Catch it. Do the hokey pokey, turn yourself around. Report to the side judge as a runner and only after all of that is it a legal catch, unless you fumble it backwards, in which case it’s incomplete despite you having held it for 10 seconds.


Leave a Reply



Spammers, don't waste your time. * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.