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NFL must address catch rule during offseason

For years, the NFL has been known for its amazing catches and spectacular one handed grabs by many of its top athletes. However, in recent seasons, rule changes have made one of football’s most fundamental aspects, the catch, as confusing as ever.

The NFL has found a way to make what was once a simplistic completion into nothing more than a guessing game, overshadowed by doubt and uncertainty. Whether sparking debates about poor calls or confusing fans and spectators to the point where nobody knows what a catch is anymore, it is clear that the NFL needs to redefine their current catch rule.

As it stands currently, the NFL’s rulebook lacks a concrete definition of what a catch is, forcing officials to rely on their own interpretations too often. According to the rule book, a receiver must clearly establish himself as a runner in order to be awarded a completion. If a player is forced to the ground while making a catch, the player must maintain possession throughout the entire process. If the player appears to have possession, but the ground causes the ball to shift or bobble, then the officials can rule it incomplete. The rule is defined in a way that is not only overly complex, but also open for too much subjectivity. What one official may consider a catch could be a clear incompletion in the eyes of another official.

The modern catch rule came to life during the 2010 season in a matchup between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears. In the game, Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson appeared to have caught a game winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter. On the play, Johnson snatched the ball out of the air with both hands, and then brought it close to his body, tucking it into his chest. Only once he collided with the turf did he finally lose possession of the football. By all means, Johnson had clear possession of the football as he was able to maneuver it around within his grip, but the officials thought otherwise. After a review, the call was reversed to an incompletion, costing the Lions the game. After the fact, the controversial call was dubbed the “Calvin Johnson rule” which emphasized that a player must keep control of the ball throughout the entire catching process. Ever since then, the play has been sparking a debate about how to define a catch.

The stakes only got higher in the Divisional Round of the 2014 playoffs when the rule once again cost a team a victory. In a clash between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers, Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant made a blatantly clear catch with both of his hands, landed on both of his feet and then dived for the end zone. During this dive, the ball bobbled slightly within his hands, causing an almost certain game winning play to be overturned. Bryant controlled the ball enough to catch it and extend it forward with his hands, but due to the rule, it cost the Cowboys their season. Week in and week out, the NFL is proving that determining what a catch is and isn’t is nothing but a guessing game under their current rules.

Due to the complexity of the rule and the interpretive nature that it brings, fans are left struggling to understand what a catch is anymore. Far too often, the audience is forced to watch as an official is sent to the review box only to have no clue on what call to make. With controversial non-catches hitting big-name players during the 2015 season like New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Cincinnati Bengals’ tight end Tyler Eifert, the problem is clearly not going away anytime soon unless the league finally decides to act.

The simple fact is that the NFL needs to redefine their concept of a catch. Right now under the current rules, a receiver must establish himself as a runner in order to be given a catch. The problem with this is that it is too subjective. Does a player need to take a certain number of steps, be capable of avoiding tackles, or hold the ball for a certain amount of time to be considered a runner? Determining when a player becomes a runner has been one of the NFL’s biggest challenges in recent years, but the solution is to simplify the rule. One possible answer is to make a player a runner if he grabs the ball with both feet on the ground, and then takes an additional step or stretches out, all without the ball shifting in his grip. If he were to lose control of the ball after this, it would be considered a fumble. This would be a simpler solution, easier to review, and would lead to less controversy.

Despite all the hatred towards the catch rule, the league has yet to bring forth any major changes that would solve the problem. Under the current situation, the NFL has turned into a circus when it comes to figuring out what a catch really is. If the league doesn’t act during this offseason, more games could be spoiled by the NFL’s most subjective rule. It’s time the NFL finally brings forward a more concrete definition of what a catch is, so that fans can stop focusing on the controversial calls, and instead turn their attention to the phenomenal grabs that make football great.   

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