It should not be that difficult to tell if some of the world’s most gifted athletes come down with a football thrown up in the air, but it is. And as those athletes, and the ones throwing the ball, get better, there’s a whole lot of gray area as to what is a catch in the NFL and what isn’t.
The league’s rule book doesn’t give fans — or players — much help figuring it out. It states (Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3) a pass is complete when:
A. A player secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground
B. The player touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands
C. The player maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has the ball long enough to clearly become a runner.
However, the rule book then states:
“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.”
All of that makes sense, until you watch an NFL game, when it is summarily contradicted and broadcasters throw around official-sounding mumbo-jumbo during replays like an auctioneer reading Shakespeare.
What exactly is possession? Or control? Can you have one without the other? Is one more important than the other? How do you decide when each happens? Does anything even matter anymore?
We asked retired NFL wide receiver Isaac Bruce, a 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist, and retired referee Mike Carey, who officiated Super Bowl XLII (the helmet-catch game). We got two very different answers.
First, there seems to be a disagreement about what “possession” means.
Bruce said possession means having a firm grasp of the ball. For example, when a receiver is going up for a catch near the sideline, he wants to show clear possession of the ball to officials.
“You’re trained to know to possess the ball in that moment,” Bruce said. “You can’t bobble the ball while you’re trying to get your feet down. You have to really squeeze the ball.”
To Carey, possession is a much more grand concept. Teams have possession of the ball; i.e.: the offense had possession and after a fumble the defense gained possession.
Players can also have possession of the ball, Carey said. They gain possession on behalf of their team. Officials are not trying to determine if a player has possession. They’re trying to determine if he has “control.”
Yes, “control.” On this count, Bruce and Carey also disagree.
To Bruce, control is a more easily accomplished, especially given how physically gifted today’s players are.
A wide receiver who has the ball in a single hand has control, he said. A player tapping the ball to himself while making a catch has control. If he has the ball pinned against his body but the ball is still moving, that’s control. If he extends the ball for a first down or a touchdown and the ball starts to move, he’s probably still got control.
“They measure the size of potential NFL players’ hands at the combine for a reason,” Bruce said. “Some of these guys hands really dwarf the size of a football. They can really handle the ball like a loaf of bread with ease.”
Control for Carey is very different. It’s the simultaneous ability to definitively secure the ball and “ward off or avoid a tackler,” he said.
In different areas of the field, it means different things mostly because of the timing of every play.
Near the sideline or end line, does the player get two feet in bounds while definitively holding the ball? If a defender is coming to tackle the player, can he continue definitively holding the ball through the tackle and hitting the ground?
A sideline catch happens very quickly, so all the elements of a catch have to be accomplished in a hurry and evaluated in a hurry.
In the middle of the field, a receiver may be running in stride, so it takes longer to clearly show the ability to “ward off or avoid a tackler,” Carey said. That can make judging those plays tricky.
When officials review controversial catches, they search for specific landmarks on the ball, like the laces or logos, to see if it moves in a player’s arms, Carey said. They also watch the play as close to full speed as possible.
“You can make anybody look like he caught the ball by slowing it down,” he said. “If you freeze it, the ball’s frozen and it looks like he’s got control. That’s a trap you don’t want to fall into. When you slow it down, you look for other things, like are his feet down or something. But to judge control you need to be at speed.”
Take Dez Bryant’s controversial drop in the 2014 playoffs or Jesse James, the Pittsburgh tight end, reaching the ball across the goal line in December of this season. Zoom in on the ball, find some landmarks and watch those up to speed. They’re correctly called incomplete passes, Carey said.
“Clearly he’s going to the ground, then he reached out for the end zone and reached the goal line, broke the plane and then the ball came loose,” he said. “That’s incomplete.”
For Bruce, that’s a bit of a mouthful, and it doesn’t make sense of demands on pass catchers in today’s NFL. Receivers are expected to do a lot of things at once while people are trying to hit them. The ball is going to move, he said.
“We’re in a place where if we can put a game in Miami and have a catch center in New Jersey to deem if it was a catch or wasn’t a catch, those people in New Jersey should be people who have been in that moment,” Bruce said. “You look at guys who have caught a thousand passes in a whole lot of ways. These guys should be the ones who deem what is a catch or what is not.”
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