How to Fix the NFL’s Nonsensical, Unfair, Utterly Stupid Catch Rule

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description and perhaps I could never succeed intelligibly in doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” Justice Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964), finding the movie in question to not be “obscene” under the First Amendment and therefore protected free speech.

Yesterday’s Steelers-Patriots gam eprovided another act in the epic tragedy that is the NFL’s catch rule. Armed with HD cameras from every angle, a command and control center in New York, and a long line of precedent, this $13 billion dollar industry still can’t figure out how to devise a rule that properly governs the most critical plays at their most critical juncture. From Calvin Johnson, to Dez Bryant, to Zach Miller, and now Jesse James (who aptly was robbed!), the victims of this wretched rule will live on in infamy until this thing is fixed.

But how to fix it?

For all the predictable rage rained down in the Twitterverse last night, there was little in the way of proposed alternatives. Just the typical visceral reaction that James obviously caught it and the Steelers got jobbed. This perspective was unwittingly confirmed in the NFL’s “explanation” of the play that started with the phrase “Roethlisberger completes a pass to James.”  

After that, the narrator ( Senior V of Officiating, Al Riveron) goes on to explain that under the NFL rules, this was not a catch because James was going to the ground when he caught the ball and did not “survive the ground’ by maintaining control of the football when he reached across the goal line. It’s hard to argue with the analysis because that’s what the rule says and unlike the Zach Miller situation a couple weeks ago (which Bears fans are still bitter about), the ball clearly moved and touched the ground before James regained control.

But there has to be a better way, though the solution is not as easy as it appears. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell came out with three alternatives that show the challenge of devising a better rule. The first two are hard to distinguish, as both involve some element of eliminating the “survive the ground” requirement if control is established earlier in the process. The problem with this alternative, though, is they substitute one technicality for another. We’ll have some other esoteric definition of what a catch is, but this time it will be weighed in favoring of having more presumptive catches, meaning the same lengthy reviews and hair-splitting analyses where “common sense” would have called for an incompletion.

For example, under Barnwell’s rule, if a guy leaps in the air, establishes initial control, but then it immediately pops out as he lands to the ground or gets hit, that would be a catch and fumble, which creates the same potential for game-changing absurdity. The point is if you try to take judgment out of the refs through mechanical application of a complicated definition, you’re just inviting controversy.

Barnwell’s third element holds more promise. Citing Bruce Arians’ common sense rule, Barnwell proposes to throw the catch definitions out the window and ask a committee of 50 ex-NFL players to anonymously vote on a play that is in dispute. He thinks this would make for great TV, ala “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” when the contestant could poll the audience.

I guess if you think the NFL needs even instant replay delays and circus atmosphere surrounding it, this is an interesting alternative. But the layering of a committee to decide an issue of “common sense” entirely misses the point. And this is where I come back to Justice Stewart, and his famous “know it when I see it” criteria for what constitutes obscenity. In the legal system, we ask our judges (and juries) to make these types of determinations all the time. To take a bunch of incomplete, and possibly inconsistent, facts, sit in a room, and then render a judgment as to whether they fit an ambiguous definition. Like “obscenity,” “intent,” or yes, even “catch.”

In sports, we used to ask this of our referees. But as technology has advanced, more and more of those decisions have been taken out of their hands and kicked to that mythical oracle of instant replay.

There are many clear cut issues that are well-suited for instant replay, like whether a player stepped out of bounds, crossed the goal line, or fumbled before his knee was down. But where a call requires a judgment, we need to put that authority back to the individuals on the field and ask them to render one that is final.

So I’m with a committee, but it should be a committee of seven. The seven well-trained individuals in black and white stripes who are on the field and closest to the action as it is happening in real-time. We do this with forward progress, holding, and pass interference—all of which are deemed non-reviewable because they require judgment calls. Just like a catch. Sure, we can attempt to define it, and tease out every piece of information at every angle, to solve for some mutated formula of our creation. But all that data cannot provide us with the right answer, if we don’t know what the question is.

What is a catch? I know it when I see it.