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NFL owners unanimously approve new catch rule, ending a decade of confusion

Dez Bryant’s famed non-catch against the Packers in an NFC playoff game in January 2015 would have been ruled a catch under the new rule. (Andrew Weber/USA Today Sports)

ORLANDO — The NFL, at long last, has a new and streamlined catch rule, a development that league leaders hope will finally bring some much-needed clarity following nearly a decade of confusion over what should be one of the simplest, most straightforward acts in all of sports.

The owners of the 32 NFL teams, gathered at an Orlando resort for the annual league meeting, unanimously voted Tuesday to ratify the proposal made by the league’s rule-making competition committee. The committee rewrote the catch rule at the behest of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who said during Super Bowl week that he wanted the rule makers to start from scratch in reworking what had been an often-confounding set of standards as to what constitutes a legal catch.

“I think it has simplified it,” Kansas City Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said earlier Tuesday. “Time will test it. We’ll see how it goes. But it sure seems like it’ll be easier for the official to officiate. It seems more clear-cut.”

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The competition committee completed its work last week, and owners predicted just before Sunday’s start of this league meeting that the new rule would face little to no opposition on its way to generating the 24 votes among the 32 owners necessary for approval. They were right.

So controversial plays that puzzled players and enraged fans — such as the infamous non-catches by the Detroit Lions’ Calvin Johnson in 2010, the Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant during the NFC playoffs at the conclusion of the 2014 season and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Jesse James last season — are now a thing of the past. Or so the NFL hopes.

“I think it’ll be better,” Minnesota Vikings Coach Mike Zimmer said Tuesday morning at the coaches’ breakfast with media members. “I think there will still be some, ‘Is it or isn’t it?’ I think it clarifies quite a bit of it. . . . From the clips they showed us, I think it’ll be more clear.”

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There still will be controversial plays and debated rulings over what’s a catch and what isn’t, the NFL’s leaders acknowledge. But at least now, they hope, the issue will be approached in a common-sense manner much more in line with the expectations of players, coaches and fans.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape on that,” New York Giants co-owner John Mara, a member of the competition committee, said earlier this week. “I think we’ll come out with something that it’s not going to solve every single situation that you see. But I think it solves the bigger issues — the Dez Bryant play, the Calvin Johnson play, the Jesse James play. I think those will all be ruled, or should be ruled, catches in the future. Is it going to get every one? No. But I think it puts us in a much better position than we’re in right now. And so do most of the officials who we’ve spoken to about it, and the coaches as well.”

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The new rule eliminates the problematic requirement that a receiver who is going to the ground while making a catch must maintain possession of the football while on the turf to be awarded a legal catch. That provision was known as the Calvin Johnson rule after it came to prominence on a play involving the Lions wide receiver eight years ago. It also was invoked in the notorious plays involving Bryant and James.

The new catch rule also says that slight movement of the football while in the receiver’s hands detectable on instant replay does not result in an incompletion, provided that the receiver maintains control of the football.

League leaders say that, under the new rule, a standard of indisputable video evidence will be used to overturn a catch ruling on replay, rather than the previous standard of clear and obvious. Some within the league were displeased last season with some of the catch-rule interpretations made on replay reviews.

The new rule says that, to be credited with a legal catch, a receiver must have control of the football with two feet or another body part on the ground in bounds. The receiver then must make a football move, either by taking an additional step or reaching the football toward the goal line or the first-down marker, or must be deemed to have had time to have done so.

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“I think when you talk about where some of the gray [area] has existed, a lot of it is in the semantics of the words,” Los Angeles Rams Coach Sean McVay said earlier Tuesday. “But, really, the third element in terms of whether it’s that third step or whether it’s controlling the ball and making a football movement — the Jesse James play, everybody wants to make reference to the Dez Bryant catch a couple years ago against Green Bay — I think that’ll clear up some of the plays that have become controversial, if you will. I think it will. I think those guys have done a great job on the competition committee.”

Committee members were said to have pored over videos of prominent catches and non-catches over the years, in effect working backward by deciding which plays they wanted to be ruled legal catches and then coming up with wording for the new rule to reflect that.

“There’s always going to be things that come up in this game,” McVay said. “It’s such a great game. But I think that’s definitely done a good job of trying to clear that rule up.”

The owners also approved a proposal by the competition committee to empower the league’s officiating department in New York to eject a player, via a replay review, for a flagrant non-football act committed on the field during a game. That would apply, for example, to late hits last season by the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Mike Evans, for which they later were suspended but were not ejected. It would not apply to anything that happens during a play, including an illegal hit, and such a review could take place only if the on-field officials already have thrown a penalty flag.

The owners made permanent the rule, previously implemented on a temporary basis, to place the football at the 25-yard line on a touchback on a kickoff.

The New York Jets withdrew their proposal to cap defensive pass interference penalties at 15 yards, at most. The proposal was opposed by the competition committee by a 6-2 vote and was not believed to have the necessary support among the owners to be ratified.

A proposal to allow a team to hire its head coach from the coaching staff of a team still playing in the postseason was not approved but was tabled for further consideration. The proposal was made by the competition committee after the Indianapolis Colts waited until after the Super Bowl this year to make their planned hiring of Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as their head coach official, only to have McDaniels change his mind and stay in New England after agreeing to a deal with Indianapolis. McDaniels never signed a contract with the Colts.

Staff writer Liz Clarke contributed to this report.

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