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A Catch or Not a Catch, That Is the Question

Did a bunch of government bureaucrats concoct the rule for what constitutes sufficient possession by a pass receiver? It’s absurd by the standards of the rest of the NFL rule book, not to mention it insults common sense and even a playground understanding of the game.

And in case you missed it, the play in question here involves Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys late in the game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. Bryant out jumped a Green Bay defender around the five yard line to grab a long pass from Tony Romo. As the two players got tangled up falling to the ground, Bryant took three steps with clear possession of the ball. Bryant’s knees appeared to hit, and then the elbow of the arm clutching the ball hit. By rule, the ground cannot cause a fumble. By common sense, three steps with the ball should constitute a made catch.

No, that would be too easy. That would make too much sense. NFL rules are not about simplicity and logic. To be clear, by the technicality of the rule, the call was right. But it’s the rule per se that is the problem.

Sometimes the league works as its own worst enemy. This is one such case, where they go out of their way to complicate with wordy IRS-sounding descriptions, not to mention inject strange paradoxes into their rule book. It makes officiating more difficult, creates paranoia and outrage among fans, and often rewards the wrong team in big moments. And it’s such an unforced error.

And by the way, this is not about Dallas or Green Bay. I have no dog in that fight. I do feel for Detroit fans last week, and for Cowboy fans this week. Well, maybe not. But they do have a doggoned good point.

Maybe it’s karma given the magical mystery pass interference flag called and then uncalled last week against Detroit. But let’s be serious: Bryant had possession for so long that he qualified for a Wisconsin state driver’s license. As I stated earlier, the rule does say you must have possession through the ground, and by that technicality, Bryant’s catch was a non-catch. Yeah, I know, but that’s not the point I’m making.

The point is the astonishing double standard for what constitutes a catch, and a touchdown for that matter under other circumstances.

So the question is this: why is that “through the ground” rule a necessity for receivers if they’ve taken several steps with the ball? By the NFL’s own standards this particular rule reads as a total contradiction. The rule could not possibly be written more poorly. What if he had taken four steps and hit the ground? Five steps? What if he ran the stadium steps? Is it a catch? This particular regulation is a constant source of controversy. And in this case, a very important disputation in a very important game. Consider the following scenarios:

A: Had Bryant made that exact same play one yard closer to the end zone, he would have crossed the plane in his three steps and the ball bouncing would likely not have mattered—because at that point he was a ball carrier by rule. Or was he?

B: But if he had caught the ball five yards deep in the end zone, the catch would be considered no good, even though such a play puts Bryant way past breaking the plane. Other rules tell us that breaking the plane with the ball, even for a nano second, is good enough.

C: Had a running back taken a handoff and taken the same amount of steps—three—then the play would not have been ruled a fumble because the ground cannot cause a fumble by rule. Had the end zone plane been broken in those three steps, then it would be a touchdown and the ground caused bobble would be totally irrelevant.

D: Had Bryant taken a handoff or a lateral on a reverse play and taken three steps and then lost the ball with ground contact, again it would be irrelevant.

The problem is this notion that somehow the ground can cause an incompletion after three steps, yet it cannot cause a fumble after three steps—or any time. Bryant had possession long enough for most Packer fans in Lambeau Field to have given up hope. They thought they were done.

And they should have been. But again, that’s not the point. The salient point is the unnecessary and embarrassing way the NFL governs their game. The day started with ESPN lampooning the NFL over the Ray Rice situation and the video that apparently they want us to think no one watched. It ended with an irrational controversy on the field, because somewhere inside the cubicles of the NFL and around the table at rules committee meetings people contrive pointless and incongruous rules that make absolutely no sense. The league remains a prisoner of its own convoluted rules.

Just like government bureaucracies.

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