INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL’s competition committee, acting on instructions from Commissioner Roger Goodell to rewrite the league’s cumbersome and often-confounding catch rule, is considering scrapping the going-to-the-ground portion of the rule that led to controversial non-catches over the years by Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant and Jesse James.
“That’s probably where it’ll end up,” one person familiar with the committee’s deliberations said Tuesday.
Committee members are meeting this week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Any rule-change proposals would be made to the owners late next month at the annual NFL meeting in Orlando. A proposal would have to be ratified by at least 24 of the 32 owners to be enacted.
Goodell said during Super Bowl week that he wanted the competition committee to start from scratch in reworking the catch rule. Goodell has been pushing for a simplified version. Given Goodell’s public stance on the issue, it’s almost certain that the committee will overhaul the rule in some fashion.
That could be more complicated than it sounds, though. A modified catch rule could lead to more turnovers on plays being called catches and fumbles by receivers rather than incompletions. The current wording of the catch rule also is closely tied to the NFL’s rules on illegal hits.
But some of the biggest catch-rule controversies have resulted from the portion of the rule that requires a receiver who goes to the ground while making a catch to maintain control of the football while on the turf.
That became known as the Calvin Johnson rule after the former Detroit Lions wide receiver was involved in a notable non-catch ruling. It came up again on an infamous non-catch call involving Bryant and the Dallas Cowboys in an NFC playoff game, which ended in a loss to the Packers. And it helped determine the outcome of a key Steelers-Patriots game in Pittsburgh this past season on a non-catch by James, a tight end for Pittsburgh.
The competition committee’s reworking of the rule likely will lead to a new version by which all of those plays would have been ruled catches.
Other issues being considered this week by the competition committee:
A 15-yard pass interference limit: Committee members might propose a 15-yard maximum for defensive pass interference penalties. This would mirror the college version of the rule. Some committee members feel that allowing penalties of 30, 40 or 50 yards — or more — puts too many game-changing and possibly season-altering decisions in the hands of the officials.
The counter-argument is that a defensive back might be tempted to simply grab or tackle a receiver any time there’s a major risk of being beaten for a longer gain. But supporters of such a proposal say they don’t see that happening often in college games. There is debate within the committee on this, and it’s not certain that it will be proposed to the owners.
Targeting: The committee is debating whether to go to a college-style targeting rule, by which a player could be ejected — subject to instant-replay confirmation — for a flagrant illegal hit.
Such a proposal would require the committee to depart from its usual approach to instant replay. The committee previously has been adamantly against subjecting judgment calls by the officials to replay review.
It could happen if the committee can get over that reluctance. Goodell has made it clear that he wants the most egregious of illegal hits out of the game for good, and committee members feel ejections offer the greatest deterrence.
Before this past season, the committee recommended that flagrant illegal hits should result in players being ejected by the officials or suspended by the league, even for first offenses. But officials remained reluctant to eject players. That reluctance probably would be removed if replay is added to the equation in a new targeting rule.
Illegal contact: Scoring was down league-wide this past season. In the past, scoring dips have led the committee to tweak rules to help offenses and, in particular, the passing game. On at least two other occasions, that means emphasizing to officials that they must strictly enforce existing rules prohibiting defenders from making contact with receivers more than five yards down the field.
That could happen again. If it does, the committee’s hope would be to open up the passing game and boost scoring at least a bit.
Coaching hires: One of the oddest moments of this year’s hiring cycle came when Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels agreed to become coach of the Indianapolis Colts, then changed his mind before signing his contract and opted to remain in New England. The Colts were left in such a difficult position because, under the NFL’s existing rules, they were prohibited from officially hiring McDaniels until after the Patriots were eliminated from the postseason. They lost the Super Bowl to the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Colts regrouped by hiring Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich.
The McDaniels fiasco for the Colts might lead the competition committee to make a change that would allow teams to avoid a repeat. The committee is considering allowing an assistant coach on a team still in the playoffs to officially complete a deal to be hired as another team’s head coach.
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