The NFL is about to have a new catch rule. The league’s rulemaking competition committee is poised to change the controversial rule by eliminating two provisions that were particularly confounding over the years to players, coaches and fans, and by modifying the standard by which catch-or-no-catch rulings are made on instant replay reviews.
“We worked backward,” said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. “We looked at plays and said: Do you want that to be a catch? And then we applied that to the rule.”
Vincent said in a phone interview Tuesday that committee members plan to propose getting rid of portions of the rule related to a receiver going to the ground while making a catch and to slight movement of the football while it’s in the receiver’s hands. The committee also intends to raise the bar by which an on-field ruling of a catch could be overturned via replay review, he said.
The competition committee, at the behest of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, is seeking a common-sense approach to what should be a relatively straightforward issue of whether a receiver makes a legal catch. But that matter has been anything but simple for the NFL, with a series of debate-fueling non-catch replay rulings in recent seasons adding to the ever-mounting confusion.
The modifications could be finalized Tuesday by the committee and presented to the owners of the 32 teams next week in Orlando at the NFL’s annual meeting, according to Vincent.
Rule-change proposals must be approved by at least 24 of the 32 franchises. But the teams generally defer to the competition committee, particularly on complicated wording-of-rules issues like the catch rule. Goodell’s publicly stated desire to see the rule rewritten will virtually guarantee that the competition committee’s recommendations are enacted for next season, some of those connected to the process have said in recent weeks.
“Slight movement of the ball, it looks like we’ll reverse that,” Vincent said Tuesday. “Going to the ground, it looks like that’s going to be eliminated. And we’ll go back to the old replay standard of reverse the call on the field only when it’s indisputable.”
The new catch rule, Vincent said, will require only that a receiver have control of the football, and any slight movement of the football in the receiver’s hands detected via replay review would not result in an incompletion.
The new rule will eliminate the requirement that a receiver who is in the process of going to the ground while making a catch must maintain control of the football while on the turf to be awarded a legal catch.
The replay standard for overturning an on-field ruling of a catch will be indisputable video evidence rather than clear and obvious.
“The Dez Bryant play, that’d be a catch” under the new rule, Vincent said, mentioning a series of controversial non-catch calls over the years. “The Jesse James play, that’d be a catch.”
Bryant, a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, had a critical first-down catch overturned via replay review during a loss to the Green Bay Packers during the NFC playoffs at the conclusion of the 2014 season. James, a tight end for the Pittsburgh Steelers, had a touchdown catch reversed during a key 2017 regular season game in a defeat to the New England Patriots. Both plays were called incompletions.
“I reached the ball out,” James said that day of his non-catch. “I felt good about it. But it’s the National Football League. I can’t control that.”
Those plays are among a lengthy list of controversial non-catches that includes one in 2010 involving former Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson. On that play, Johnson secured what would have been a game-winning touchdown against the Chicago Bears, but the ball popped free when he hit the ground. The going-to-the-ground provision was known informally as the Calvin Johnson rule because of that play.
The rule has come up several times per season since then. There were two catch-rule plays during the Super Bowl that drew scrutiny. Both were touchdowns for the Philadelphia Eagles that were allowed to stand as called on the field during their triumph over the Patriots.
“You can’t really worry about it because at the end of the day, it’s a weird rule,” Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor said after the game. “But, like, the guy catches a slant … takes it two steps and then on his own will dives in to score. It’s a touchdown. It’s obvious.”
Vincent also mentioned a prominent non-catch call last season involving Buffalo Bills wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin that would have been ruled a touchdown under the new standards.
Goodell said at the Super Bowl that he wanted the committee to start from scratch in rewriting the catch rule.
“From our standpoint, I think I would like to start back, instead of adding to the rule or subtracting [from] the rule, start over again and look at the rule fundamentally from the start because I think when you add or subtract, then it still leads to confusion,” Goodell said at his annual state-of-the-league address during Super Bowl week.
Goodell said then that officials were calling the rule correctly but the rule itself needing mending.
“I think we have some very good ideas that we’re going to submit to the competition committee,” Goodell said. “I think there will be a lot of focus on going to the ground, which I think is a big part of the confusion for everyone with respect to that rule. And I think we’ve got a great opportunity here to get this rule right so that everyone understands and appreciates it and that’s not the focus going forward.”
Reducing — not eliminating — controversy was the goal, according to Goodell.
“I’m not here to tell you there won’t be controversy,” he said at the Super Bowl. “But I believe we can get to a much better place.”
According to Vincent, the committee sought outside opinions from observers like former coach Bill Cowher and former player Kellen Winslow.
“We were watching the Jesse James play,” Vincent said, “and Kellen said, ‘Tell me why that wasn’t a catch. It looks like a catch. It smells like a catch. The fans think it’s a catch. It’s a catch.’”
The competition committee is meeting this week in Florida and is scheduled to publicly announce its proposals Friday.
There will be no proposal for a college-style targeting rule made by the committee, Vincent said Tuesday. The committee will propose giving replay officials the ability to eject a player already penalized by the on-field officials for a non-football play, as with last season’s on-field incidents involving the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Mike Evans.
The proposal for a 15-yard limit on defensive pass interference remains alive, according to Vincent. No decision has been made yet by the competition committee whether to give its backing to that proposal, he said.
The committee will propose putting a 40-second limit on a coach deciding whether to make a replay challenge (even when the game, say, goes to a commercial break and there’s more time than that between plays).
The defenseless-player rules will be expanded, Vincent said, to give more protection to a runner — particularly a quarterback who’s running — who gives himself up at the end of a run, either by sliding or diving, as with a notable hit on the Baltimore Ravens’ Joe Flacco last season.
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