NFL Fumbles on Catch Rule

Dez Bryant at the end of the play

Odell Beckham, Jr’s reign as maker of the Greatest Catch Ever was about seven weeks and two hours old when Dez Bryant threatened to usurp him.

Beckham’s back flipping, one-handed grab of an Eli Manning aerial on 11/23 against the Cowboys was widely hailed as the greatest catch of all time. Nobody had ever seen that kind of catch before. But the impact of the stunning grab was to the senses only. Beckham’s second quarter touchdown did not avoid the Giants’ 28-31 loss, their sixth straight, which Bryant sealed for the Cowboys with his second touchdown catch of the day with 1:01 remaining.

The stakes were a lot higher last Sunday in the NFC playoffs when on fourth and two from the Packers 34 with 4:42 to go, trailing 21-26, Cowboy quarterback Romo launched a 30-yard spiral towards the left sideline to Bryant, who was closely guarded by Sam Shields. Bryant made a terrific leaping catch at the eight yard line, turned in mid air, planted his left, then right foot, and then drove off his left leg to the end zone while switching the ball from his right to left hand. When Bryant’s left hand hit the ground just short of the goal line, the ball came loose momentarily, and Bryant secured it. The ruling on the field was a completed catch, and a Dallas first down at the one.

When the catch occurred, few questioned it, least of all the announcers, who were dumbfounded by Bryant’s athleticism and made no mention of the ball coming loose. Perhaps they were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the play, which was described by Sally Jenkins in Tuesday’s Washington Post: “Bryant’s catch was such an act of vaulting physical genius that for a moment it shook off all earthbound anxieties.”

So much had occurred between the catch and the ball’s dislodgment: Bryant had landed both feet in bounds, taken an additional step, switched the ball into his left hand, and then dove to the end zone. At worst, we had a catch, and maybe a fumble, recovered by Bryant. Beckham tweeted his agreement. “I thought Bryant made the catch, then went towards the end zone for a touchdown, lost the ball, and then recovered it.”

It was a surprise when perspicacious Packer Coach Mike McCarthy requested a review of the play, and an absolute shock when the referees reversed the catch. The reason offered was that Bryant had not maintained possession of the football “through the entire process of the catch.”

The ruling stems from Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3 of the NFL Rule book, which states, “If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass, he must maintain control of the ball through the process of contacting the ground.” But the same section provides: “ A catch occurs when a player secured control of the ball in his hands, and has maintained control of the ball long enough to enable him to perform any act common to the game.”

Bryant took three steps after making the catch and lunged to the end zone. Later, Referee Gene Steratore said, “ Bryant’s actions after the catch were all done while falling, and he never had another act common to the game.” NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino said, “We need control with both feet and then (the receiver) do something with it.”

I can’t define “an act common to the game,” but I do know that when a receiver takes a step, switches the ball into another hand, and dives to the end zone, then he is “doing something.”

The rule was introduced a few years ago to eliminate the need to determine whether a player had full possession before reaching the ground. But when a player continues to push forward after making a catch, without breaking clear of his tackler, the referee must be able to draw a line between the catch and the fall. To the dismay of everyone but Packers fans, the officiating crew on Sunday did not do so.

Bryant had trumped Beckham‘s great catch, on November 23, and now the referees had trumped Bryant.

Bryant could not believe it. For a very long moment, he plaintively extended his hands face up to the sky, and asked the world for justice. But he wasn’t getting it from the 80,000 Lambeau Field attendants, who could not believe their good fortune.

Bryant has had a troubled past – born to a 14 year old crack addict, arrested for domestic abuse, and branded as a hothead for most of his early career – but it’s doubtful that he’s ever felt more abused by the system than when his magnificent moment was snuffed out on a technicality.

The call, of course, was outcome-determinative. The Packers took over at the 34, and ran out the clock.

The official Cowboys reaction was surprisingly accepting . ‘Boy fans were slitting their throats, but owner Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett stayed composed. “I do think he made it (the catch), but we’ve had a lot of re-looks at things around here. Sometimes they go for you and sometimes they don’t,” he said. Jones view was tempered by the knowledge that the Cowboys had beaten Detroit the week before with the aid of an egregious no call on an obvious pass interference; and he is a member of NFL royalty. Garrett was about to sign a five year contract to continue as coach. Neither was in a position to cry bloody murder.

Not so for the millions of fans who know a catch when they see one and are fed up with games being decided by the application of obtuse rules which run contrary to the mainstream of judgment. One writer noted,”I could go into a bar right now, and ask 50 drunks whether it was a catch, and all 50 would say it was a catch.”

The NFL has had a very bad year off the field. Only by the sheer magnificence of its on-field product has it managed to thrive ratings-wise and revenue-wise. But when games are decided on the basis of technicalities rather than the quality of performance, it’s high time for another rule change.

Or maybe they should hire drunks as referees.


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One Response to “NFL Fumbles on Catch Rule”

  1. Good comments, as usual, Mike. Totally agree with you, 100%: IF that was not a catch, then we need a rule change, for all the reasons you said. And I hate the Cowboys (but I do like it happening to them after they got there after the no-PI call in the Lions game).

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