Here's why the 2018 Super Bowl could set stage for revamped catch rule next season

In the midst of the insanity of the 2018 Super Bowl and all the hijinks surrounding the Eagles 41-33 win over the Patriots, the NFL managed to do something it had not done in what felt like almost a decade: it made a sensible ruling about what constitutes a catch. 

And when we think back on the 2017 NFL season, there is a good chance we will look back and remember it as the year where the proverbial camel had his proverbial back broken by the proverbial straw when it comes to the catch rule, and perhaps replay reviews as well. Super Bowl LII could very well signal a sea of change in how the NFL manages both catches and replay reviews of catches. 

This all goes back to the 2010 season, when the Calvin Johnson Rule was instituted. Johnson famously caught a touchdown pass during a Week 1 game against the Bears, only to have it called back because he "did not complete the catch in the process of the catch." The play was reviewed and confirmed. 

At the time -- and I think this is still true -- it looked like Johnson was just such a freak that he purposely held onto the ball with his right hand (after catching it with two hands) and landed on his left hand, believing he secured himself all the way to the ground. He was just setting the ball on the ground, even if it did look like it moved a little bit. 

Having said that, when you watch it now, it's no surprise at all, given how the NFL has handled the catch rule the last few years, that it would be ruled incomplete. 

This nonsense has been going on so long you can't even access the original incident on NFL GamePass. And over the course of time since the Johnson catch, technology has improved with replay to the point networks can zoom in and freeze on a granular level. We spend multiple hours each Sunday debating whether or not a ball budged slightly and whether or not a receiver had control before the ball budged and whether or not someone "survived the ground" after making a catch. Good luck determining whether or not someone became a runner before breaking the plane of the end zone. 

It happened again during the Super Bowl, with most of Philadelphia turning on NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth because he was as befuddled as everyone else as to what ruling the officials would return with after looking at the replay on two different calls. 

The first was really difficult to figure out. Eagles rookie running back Corey Clement caught a pass from Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles -- maybe his best pass of the game, if we're being honest -- in the back of the end zone. It was initially ruled a touchdown and certainly looked that way live.

A closer look indicated Clement clearly got two feet in, but the ball might have moved slightly after his first step. It wasn't clear if he got a third foot down, which would have been his second foot down after establishing possession. 

This sort of incident has, almost without fail, been ruled incomplete for the entirety of the 2017 NFL season. I had picked the Eagles to win the game, so I was perfectly fine with the touchdown counting -- I was very confident it would be ruled incomplete. Everyone in my near vicinity in the press box was pretty confident it would be ruled incomplete. Collinsworth was not trying to keep the Eagles from scoring, he just agreed with everyone else after a season's worth of watching NFL officials handling the replay in New York decide what is and what is not a catch.

"Take a look here, starts to lose control and then that left foot is clearly out of bounds," Al Michaels said after dropping an "mmm hmmm hmm" when he saw the initial replay.

Michaels is like any broadcaster or analyst: he's been following trends and behavior from the officials in the hopes of predicting what will be ruled a catch. It's our job, but it has been increasingly difficult this year because you just don't know. 

"That's out," Collinsworth remarked.

"It's out," Michaels added. "Definitely." 

That's when, after a commercial break, Gene Steratore blew their minds and ruled the play was a touchdown. 

Collinsworth said he was "stunned" and then said "I give up. I give up. I give up. If that ball's not loose in his arms when that last foot came down, I give up. I don't know."

No one does! Maybe the NFL officials decided not to let the overbearing catch replay rules have an adverse effect on the Super Bowl. Maybe the NFL decided Clement was attempting to secure the ball, not having it bobble. Maybe they decided there was not enough evidence to overturn it. Whatever the case, it was surprising. 

The second case of a catch replay in Super Bowl LII should have been far less surprising. On what would be the Eagles game-winning touchdown, tight end Zach Ertz caught a pass from Foles around the six-yard line, took three steps and dove towards the end zone. As he landed on the ground, the ball popped out. 

"Zach Ertz! For the touchdown!" Michaels said immediately after the play. "Again, all you can think back is Jesse James of Pittsburgh. Does he complete the process?"

Collinsworth claimed he was "not even taking a guess," but then, unfortunately decided to take a guess.

"I think they have to overturn it," Collinsworth said, before adding "I think this is incomplete."

This was surprising to me, rewatching the game. Maybe the previous catch ruling shook the two announcers up? Collinsworth did ask if Ertz was a runner in the process and, to me, it was impossible to rule Ertz was NOT a runner. Look where he caught the ball:

via NFL GamePass

And then look at where he was when the ball came loose:

via NFL GamePass

If you procure the ball SIX YARDS AWAY FROM THE END ZONE, you are definitely a runner if you cross the plane of the end zone. The sheer physics of the situation require it. People will point to the infamous Dez Bryant catch as a comparison here (I actually heard someone do that on sports talk radio driving back from the airport Monday), but stop that nonsense right away.

When you rewatch Dez' catch, you clearly see the ball is jarred loose well in front of the end zone. Ertz was a runner, took multiple steps and dove into the end zone. He broke the plane before the ball ever sniffed the ground. Dez? Not so much. 


Random fun: Gene Steratore was the Super Bowl LII ref, the Dez catch ref AND the Calvin Johnson ref. If centralized replay wasn't in place, there's a pretty good chance the Eagles don't get both of those touchdowns based on his history in games.

Ertz' situation was much more similar to the notorious Golden Tate catch from 2015, in which Tate appeared to lose the ball and have it intercepted by the Bears, only to have the refs rule he was an established runner before he crossed the goal line. Look where Tate caught the ball then and please try to tell me Ertz wasn't a runner. 

via NFL/Twitter

It's not that anyone wanted to believe Ertz's touchdown didn't count for nefarious reasons. It's just that the NFL spent the last several years being highly inconsistent and convoluting the rules to the point where no one is entirely positive what is and what is not a catch. It actually feels like Al Riveron is sitting in the New York offices with some kind of Wheel of Fortune like setup, spinning to see which way he should rule.

Which is what made the Super Bowl so refreshingly frustrating. For once, the NFL was inconsistent, but in a good way. 

The Ertz thing should be a no-brainer call. But two of the best in the biz didn't catch it right away, so maybe not. The Clement catch was a perfect litmus test for the future of the catch rule. In real time, it appeared Clement caught it. That sounds silly, but we want a catch to look like a catch, right? (I do.) He acquired possession of the ball in a clear fashion, he got two feet in bounds and he held onto the ball all the way to the ground. Maybe he bobbled it a little bit. Maybe not. But the ball hit his damn hands in the air and never left them until he stood up off the ground and he managed to get two feet into the legal field of play. 

As far as I'm concerned, that's enough to qualify as a catch. I don't need to spend 45 minutes per game slowing down plays frame-by-frame and arguing on Twitter whether or not a ball moved. If the play was ruled a touchdown live, even better. The NFL needs to use replay in order to fix anything that is severely messed up. Egregious errors should be corrected by replay. We don't need pedantic details scrutinized on a micro level multiple times per week. 

This appeared to be, based on the speed of the review and the outcome, what the NFL did in the Clement case. The Ertz outcome was also beneficial, although it took FAR too long to figure out that grown man carried a ball for six yards and therefore was a runner. 

Combine these outcomes with pre Super Bowl comments from Roger Goodell about the state of the catch rule and it's easy to see the path for the NFL finding a way to really break this thing down and come up with some common sense rulings to streamline replay and make football easier for everyone to, you know, watch and enjoy.

Goodell said he was "concerned" with how things were going and, after speaking with five Hall of Fame receivers and multiple coaches, he believed there was reason to look into the rule.

"We've got some ideas of how to bring some clarity to that, particularly in the going to the ground that I think has created a lot of the confusion because it's a different rule when you're going to the ground when you're on the sideline or in the end zone," Goodell said. "I hope we'll be able to address this in a way that will bring more clarity and frankly more excitement to this."

Goodell even admitted in his annual State of the League press conference he would be willing to "start over again" when it came to the catch rule. 

"From our standpoint, I would like to start back, instead of adding to the rule, subtracting the rule. Start over again and look at the rule fundamentally from the start," Goodell said. "Because I think when you add or subtract things you can still lead to confusion. These rules are very complex -- you have to look at what the unintended consequences are of making a change, which is what the Competition Committee, in my view, does so well and with so much thought."

People like to dog Goodell, but this is a smart plan. Stop trying to take what we have and to shift things around. Just smash the current conceit of a catch into oblivion, break out the "Men in Black" neuralyzers to zap Steratore and Co. in the face and let everyone learn the catch rules anew. 

This new rule does not need to create some situation where we end up with, as Bill Belichick has pointed out, a million catches and a million fumbles. That would be bad news for the NFL and lead to bigger problems (hello, forty "whistles blowing everything dead" controversies per week).

But the rule can be simplified to the point where clear and obvious catches are ruled just that on the field. If it looks like a catch and it walks like a catch it should be catch. The good news for football fans is we got a glimpse of a life with a lot less controversy thanks to the catch rulings we saw during the final game of the 2017 season. 

Super Bowl LII might have created some unexpected rulings from the officials but they should pave the way for a clearer future. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

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