Complex process of catch not only rued NFL rule
Jan. 12, 2015
Hours after Dallas was defeated in Green Bay, the player at the center of that game's most memorable sequence spoke for millions of other football followers than just the Cowboys and their frustrated fans.
"We lost and I accept it," wide receiver Dez Bryant tweeted, "but please change that rule."
His leaping 31-yard reception on fourth down landed at the 1 in the waning minutes, but the call was overturned by a Packers challenge and Green Bay took a 26-21 victory to the NFC championship game.
Dallas had many other opportunities to win and the rule was widely deemed to be interpreted correctly, so the latest NFL controversy wasn't about a team getting a raw deal from the refs.
Rather, this was the conundrum: a spectacular catch that passed the eye test for most people watching, but failed to satisfy the league's complex rule book. The spotlight Sunday fell on Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1:
"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 throughout the process of contacting 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."
The biggest beef raised by Bryant and the Cowboys was that the ball only came loose when it hit the ground near the pylon. He had full possession as he took his stumbling steps toward the goal line, but because by definition he was considered to still be falling then that didn't count toward completion of the catch.
The rule was put in place to make such calls easier for officials on the field. The league's vice president of officiating, Dean Blandino, said Sunday that Bryant's "football move" of stretching his arm toward the goal line was not obvious enough.
"If we make this a catch, then where do we draw the line with a lot of other plays where it's clearly incomplete by rule?" Blandino said on the NFL Network. "It can be become even more inconsistent."
Since this happened at such a pivotal point of such an important game, strict parameters will likely stay in first place on the public's list of gripes for a while. There are worthy competitors for the most rued rule, though:
— Excessive celebration.
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's signature crossbar slam dunk in the back of the end zone was the most recent creative act to land on the no-no list. Entertainment is what pulls so many millions of people into these games each Sunday during the season, and the NFL's various attempts to limit on-field flamboyance following touchdowns or even sacks have triggered many a complaint. The derisive "No Fun League" nickname rose out of this eye-rolling exasperation decades ago.
— Defensive pass interference.
The NCAA's punishment is 15 yards, but the NFL puts the ball at the spot of the foul, even if that happens to be inches from the end zone after a 40 or 50-yard penalty. Without replay reviews allowed in these cases and much contention about what's allowable for down-field contact and what's not, the pass interference flag is perhaps the most debated in the sport. So there's no worse feeling for the offending team, or its fans, to see the opponent get first and goal with disagreement with the call in the first place.
Everyone is for player safety, of course, and the frightening amount of post-career health problems in this violent game have prompted the league to tighten standards for pressuring the quarterback, bringing down the ball carrier and covering the receiver.
With the crackdown on hard hits, especially those to and with the head, has come confusion from defensive players in recent years about what they're allowed to do to keep the offense from beating them. Slowing by a half-step in this ultra-fast sport to make sure a tackle or a hit is legal will inevitably lead to a whiff and a long gain.
There are always contrarians to the consensus, of course.
NFL analyst Cris Carter, the Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver, said Monday on ESPN radio that he's a strong proponent of the process-of-catch rule.
"It really helps clear it up," Carter said. "Hand the ball to the referee."
Rules that might have outlived their usefulness or become unnecessarily unwieldy to most were once installed for legitimate reasons.
In 2010, a few weeks after a controversial incompletion that went against Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions, a similar non-catch to Bryant's, NFL competition committee co-chairman Rich McKay acknowledged the difficulty of the rule.
"It was made for on-field officials," McKay said, "not as much for people watching on TV."