In order to understand the difficulty that is describing a catch, I’d encourage you to pause and think about it for yourself. Obviously it entails grabbing the ball out of the air before it hits the ground, but how long do you have to hold it before it’s considered a catch? How do you the precise moment when a player goes from not having caught the ball to having caught it? The answers aren’t simple. To complicate matters is the issue of establishing a presence in bounds. What should constitute an in bounds catch? Does the catch need to maintained through the entire process of establishing an in bounds positions? These are the questions that collectively need to be addressed by the NFL.
Though fans love to hate the current iteration of the NFL’s catch rule, few know what the actual rule is, unless they’ve stumbled upon rule 8 article 1 sections 3 and 4 whilst casually perusing the joyous read that is the NFL Rulebook (sensing some sarcasm? Well I should hope so, I was laying it on pretty thick). The rule states currently that a player must secure “control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground” and that they must “touch the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of their body other than their hands.” Got it so far? That part is pretty simple, and it isn’t the part the NFL is particularly concerned with. However, that isn’t where the rule ends.
Item 1 of the rule goes on to explain what happens in the event a player is catching the ball while in the process of heading to the ground. To that end, the rule states that a player must “maintain control of the ball AFTER their initial contact with the ground.” If he loses control and the ball touches the ground or the player touches out of bounds before regaining control, then the pass is incomplete. Any questions? You should have a few. These “clarifications” the league rules offer about the process of a catch while falling to the ground leave much to be desired. The primary questions one should have are 1) why must a player maintain control beyond initial contact and 2) how long must a player hold on after initial contact?
Broadcasters commonly use the phrase “the ground can’t cause a fumble.” It’s true. If a runner falls to the ground and the force of impact with the ground jars the ball loose, the play is dead, no fumble. In other words, the play is over upon initial contact with the ground, unlike when a player is in the process of a catch. When it comes to catches, the saying can be extended to say, “the ground can’t cause a fumble, but it can cause an incompletion.” If that sounds a bit inconsistent to you, that’s because it is. It’s the crux of the issue with the league’s rule. The phrase about maintaining the catch is noticeably absent from the rules governing college and high school football.
In regards to the changes that could come to the rule, Goodell has only said that he wants to start from scratch, but that the main focus would be on fixing the criteria for when a player goes to the ground. The solution should be relatively simple, don’t worry about maintaining possession through the the contact with the ground, just worry about having possession when contact with the ground is first made. Sometime the simple answer is the best. A simple and easy to apply catch rule will turn the focus of games back to the players and the game itself, rather than the overly intricate and confounding language that is the current catch rule.
The rule will be addressed at the league meetings from March 25-28. A change to the catch rule would undoubtedly be the biggest in game rule change of the offseason, and could be on of the more impactful rule changes in recent memory. Here’s hoping it happens.