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Catch rule could be simplified

The NFL Competition Committee is looking to clarify the inexplicably complicated catch rule

Divisional Round - New Orleans Saints v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

One of the most controversial rules in the NFL might be getting a face-lift this offseason, to the benefit of all.

NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent gave an interview on Tuesday and gave indications that the competition committee would be making updates to the NFL so-called “catch rule.” This rule has been criticized from numerous angles over the years as the NFL has tried to define what exactly is a catch.

Now the NFL seems to be nearing a decision on simplifying the rule.

According to Mark Maske of the Washington Post, Vincent said the NFL plans to eliminate two factors that can cause incompletions.

”Slight movement of the ball, it looks like we’ll reverse that,” he said. “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.”

That interview, which is linked here, goes on.

“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.”


“We were watching the Jesse James play,” Vincent said, “and Kellen [Winslow] 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.’”

So one of the biggest headaches in the NFL could be reduced in the coming season. Now, what would these changes involve?

  1. First mentioned by Vincent, the idea that a small shift in ball position when it’s in a receiver’s arms will now not necessarily be grounds for an incomplete pass. This is, of course, one of the biggest issues with the catch rule, as small movements by the ball are hard to accurately judge either from eyesight alone or even with replay as being catches. Now, if these changes are implemented, significant ball movement will be necessary for a catch to be overturned.
  2. That follows into the second part of his statement, the idea that going to the ground will be eliminated. The concept of “going to the ground” is based around this item in the completed catch rule:

Item 1. Player Going to the Ground. A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.

This would, in theory and without knowing exactly how much of the rule would be eliminated, mean that receivers would no longer have to be counted as a runner for a play to be considered a catch. Of course, this rule change will likely increase the number of fumbles in the NFL, as receivers no longer have to be established as runners to make catches.

3. Returning to the idea that calls on the field should only be returned when there is indisputable evidence. Now, the NFL’s current standard is “clear and obvious” evidence, whatever that means, so a return to the level of “indisputable evidence” will likely mean that an increase in 50-50 calls will go in favor of the offensive team. Seems pretty self-explanatory, really.

Now, Roger Goodell has said that he expects there to be continued controversy surrounding the catch rule. The uptick expected in fumbles and upheld calls will likely provide that. But, for what it’s worth, the NFL does appear to be giving at least a long, hard look at one of its opaquest and worst-understood rules.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, I do believe that these rule changes would have meant that Adam Thielen’s “dropped” touchdown against the Panthers last season would have actually been a touchdown, making it a greater possibility that the Vikings have HFA in the 2017 playoffs.