PITTSBURGH—Welcome back, NFL catch rule.
You were missed.
Not really, of course. But isn’t that the polite thing to say to even an unwelcome guest around the holidays?
Does it surprise anyone that the always-confounding issue of what is a legal catch in the NFL and what isn’t might have pretty much determined the outcome of the tumultuous 2017 season?
The New England Patriots won a thrilling game with a wild finish, 27-24, Sunday in Pittsburgh. The Patriots now have the upper hand for a rematch in the AFC title game, if indeed there is one, to be played in Foxborough, Mass. And the winner of that game would be a solid favorite in the Super Bowl.
So the outcome of the season might have hinged on what happened Sunday evening in Heinz Field. And the outcome of the Patriots’ victory hinged, in large part, on a catch-rule reversal by instant replay that turned a would-be go-ahead touchdown for the Steelers into an incompletion.
After the Patriots scored a touchdown and added a two-point conversion with 56 seconds left, the Steelers raced down the field in only two plays. The second of those, it appeared, was a 10-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to tight end Jesse James, who reached the football across the goal line with 28 seconds to play.
Alas, as James tumbled to the ground and reached across the goal line, the ball touched the turf. It may or may not have moved around in James’s hands. He may or may not have kept his right hand between the ball and the ground. On the field, the call was touchdown. After the replay review, the call was incomplete pass. The touchdown that wasn’t undid the Steelers, as they opted against a tying field goal on third down, and Roethlisberger threw an interception in the end zone on a fake-spike play with five seconds to go.
But it was all about the catch rule.
“I was just trying to watch it to see what happened,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “Once I thought about it that way, no. I know it’s always hard to know when you hit the ground — catch, no catch. But when you see it, it was kind of like his hands weren’t under it. Obviously I’m a little biased out there.”
James joined Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant and perhaps a few others in catch-rule infamy.
“I reached the ball out,” he said. “I felt good about it. But it’s the National Football League. I can’t control that.”
By now, players should know. Coaches should know. Fans should know.
“In order to have a completed pass, a receiver must survive going to the ground,” referee Tony Corrente told a pool reporter. “In this case, he had control of the football but he was going to the ground. As he hit the ground, the ball began to roll and rotate and the ball hit the ground and that’s the end of it at that point…. He lost complete control of the football. That was the ruling out of replay.”
Remember that replay rulings this year are made by those in the league office in New York, with the referee merely a consultant.
“James is going to the ground as he reaches the goal line,” Al Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, said in a video posted on Twitter. “And that’s the key here: He is going to the ground. By rule, to complete the process of the catch he must survive the ground. And by that, we mean he must maintain control of the football…. He does put the ball over the goal line extended. Once he gets there, he loses control of the football and then the ball hits the ground. We can see… the ball touches the ground. … Therefore, the ruling on the field of a touchdown was changed to an incomplete pass.”
Riveron’s predecessors, Dean Blandino and Mike Pereira, haven’t always backed his replay rulings this season in their roles as rules analysts for Fox. But in this case, both said that Riveron got it right.
“That’s the rule and it’s a bright line,” Blandino wrote on Twitter. “If you are going to the ground to make the catch you have to hold onto the ball when you land. He isn’t a runner until he completes the catch so goal line is not a factor. It’s an incomplete pass.”
Pereira wrote on Twitter: “Look, here is the rule. If you’re going to the ground you have to hold onto the ball when the ball hits the ground… Going to the ground trumps lunging/reaching to try and get extra yards or score a TD. You do that at your own risk. It’s incomplete… just ask Dez[.]”
One day, the NFL will have a common-sense approach to what’s a catch and what isn’t. If it looks like a catch, it will be a catch. If it doesn’t look like a catch, it won’t be a catch.
Such a switch from total chaos to a sensible rule has happened in the past. The NFL stuck by its insane tuck rule for years, then suddenly abandoned it and said it never had made sense.
That will happen with the catch rule. Eventually.
In the meantime, there’s no use arguing about it. There’s no sense trying to figure it out, really. If the receiver goes to the ground and the football comes loose and hits the turf anytime in, say, the next month or so, anything can happen. Just accept the madness. Don’t fight it.
Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin, a member of the NFL’s rule-making competition committee, knows better than to try to make (common) sense of it all.
“You know, I don’t have HD and all of that stuff,” Tomlin said Sunday. “So it’s really irrelevant how I feel about it, to be honest with you. It’s not going to change the outcome of the game. I’m not going to cry over spilled milk and all of that crap and talk about replay. I ain’t doing it.”
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