The catch rule explained: Why Steelers' apparent go-ahead TD was overturned

Historically speaking, Jesse James should be doing the robbing. However, the Steelers and their fans feel cheated after James apparently scored with under 30 seconds remaining in the game against the Patriots.

The touchdown would have given the Steelers a 30-27 lead with the opportunity to make it 31-27 with Chris Boswell's extra point. However, after a long look in replay, the call was overturned. The Steelers ran two more plays, and Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception on an ill-advised slant route on third down. Game: Pats.

This has fans of 31 teams asking: Just what in the world is a catch? It seems like every few years -- or even weeks -- we get one of these calls. Why can't we seem to get a definitive idea of what a catch is, and why isn't the eye test good enough? So it's worth taking a look at some of these high-profile plays that have come over the years and try to discern where the receivers went wrong (or where the officials did, as the case may be).

You're going to see the words "by the rule" a lot going forward, because a lot of these plays may look wrong but technically aren't. And on these close calls, "technically" is what matters.

What constitutes a catch by NFL rules?

By the letter of the law, a lot of things have to happen for a play to be a catch. The rule that is most often disputed is marked in the NFL's operations rulebook as "player going to the ground."

Item 1. Player Going to the Ground. A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. 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 until after his initial contact with 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.

"Whether in the field of play or the end zone" is important language, because the NFL has a lot of weird rules regarding the end zone. There's the infamous rule that if the offense fumbles it through the opponent's end zone it's ruled a touchback, alongside the pylons having an infinite vertical plane (so players diving out of bounds can extend the ball back into the field of play before they go down for a touchdown). There's also Item 4 in the operations book on catches, which is a nice little ditty that often comes into play on these controversial calls.

Item 4. Ball Touches Ground. If the ball touches the ground after the player secures control of it, it is a catch, provided that the player continues to maintain control.

Basically, the ball can hit the ground, but it can't move. Something like a "pin" may apply. In the context of this item, James' catch is dicey. However, before we get there, let's take a look at some of the more controversial calls over the years.

The Calvin Johnson non-touchdown

The one that started it all: A call that hurt the Lions, as is tradition. In 2010, Johnson caught what was thought to be a likely game-winning touchdown against the Bears. However, as he fell to the ground, Johnson put the ball down and ran away in celebration. The play was reviewed and ultimately overturned, and the Lions lost the game.

So then, looking at this item by item, was it a catch?

Does Johnson maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact of the ground?

A resounding yes. He's going down, puts his hand down to steady himself, and is palming the ball in his other hand, holding it high.

Does Johnson lose control of the ball, and does the ball touch the ground before Johnson regains control?

This is suspect, and where the controversy kicks in, but yes, with an asterisk. By setting the ball down, Johnson is by definition losing control of the ball. Even if he's just setting it down, it's still losing control. But it raises a question: Why is voluntarily losing control losing control if the play is thought to be over?

This is where people talk about "the process of the catch." Johnson is going to the ground, he has control, but when he sets the ball on the ground to steady himself before he gets up, the ball rolls away. That's what makes it incomplete. Had Johnson kept the ball in his hand after steadying himself and standing up, I have no doubt that that call stands as it was called on the field. He never re-establishes, and therefore it's not a touchdown (again, by the letter of the rule).

Golden Tate's 2015 touchdown vs. the Bears

This is a weird one, because "football moves" start to come into play. What is a football move? Absolutely nobody knows. Apparently this.

Let's do a fun thing and revisit a different part of the rulebook regarding catches, because that's something that needs to be done.

A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is in-bounds:

  1. secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
  2. touches the ground in-bounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
  3. maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has the ball long enough to clearly become a runner. A player has the ball long enough to become a runner when, after his second foot is on the ground, he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up field, or taking additional steps (see 3-2-7-Item 2).

So, looking at Tate's play, is this a catch?

Does Tate secure control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground?

It appears so. He has the ball tightly in his bread basket with Kyle Fuller hanging off of his back.

Does he touch the ground in-bounds with both feet?

Yes. Both of Tate's feet hit the ground in a "running motion," so to speak.

Does he have the ball long enough to become a runner?

Once again, this is where it gets tricky. He sort of becomes a runner because he's taken steps, but can he be a runner with a defender hanging off of him? Being in the end zone technically doesn't void this qualification, but once he takes those steps, the argument seems to be that he's a runner and the play is dead. So by the letter of the rule, the argument can be made that it is a touchdown. The real issue is that the call on the field is a touchback, so is this indisputable evidence? Hard to say.

The Dez Bryant no-catch

Let's stay in 2015, this one is always good.

Once again, going through the list (the going to the ground checklist):

Does Bryant maintain control until his initial contact with the ground?

Yes. Bryant clearly has the ball secured on his way to the ground, and is holding it up while using the other arm to prepare himself to lunge.

Does Bryant lose control of the ball, and does the ball hit the ground before he regains possession?

It appears so, but again, this play is controversial due to the ruling on the field. The ruling is a completion, and therefore you need indisputable evidence to overturn. The argument that's made in favor of this being a catch is that it's impossible to tell if Bryant's hand was underneath the ball when it bobbled. Basically, the ground can't cause a fumble, but it can cause an incompletion -- if contact with the ground jostles the ball loose, it's incomplete. Had Bryant kept the ball secured when the alleged bobble was made, this play stands as called. He didn't, so it got overturned.

Keep in mind, this play did lead to a rule change, but all that the new rule did was re-establish why Bryant's catch wasn't a catch. For starters, it took out the "football move" language and added "initial" contact with the ground. In fact, the wording of the Dez Bryant rule ironically might be what did James in on the play against the Patriots.

Zach Miller touchdown overturned vs. Saints

I'm honestly loathe to link the video to this one, but it's pretty much the only one I can think of that is empirically the wrong call any way you look at it. There is no reason that this should not have been a touchdown, and that's even ignoring the emotion behind the play. This video shows the catch in the first 30 seconds, and don't watch if you're squeamish, because Miller's knee dislocation is pretty gnarly.

Miller makes the catch and clearly sits up with the ball still corralled. He even says in the video above that when he set the ball aside he thought to himself "that's gotta be long enough." It wasn't, and the call was inexplicably overturned. How this wasn't a catch is, to be frank, absolutely beyond me. He goes to the ground, holds onto the ball, maintains possession, and only after the play is clearly, clearly over does he flip the ball aside.

Jesse James TD overturned vs. Patriots

Out of all of these examples, Dez is the most comparable as they're players that were outside of the end zone extending for six. The difference is: one broke the plane, and one didn't. But here's the thing -- that doesn't matter. The rules are the same in and out of the end zone, as established above.

It kind of feels like a need to make endings controversial is fueling this one. James is clearly going to the ground, so the "football move" argument doesn't really apply here. Is reaching for the end zone a football move? Probably. But it's voided. He is horizontal at the time of making the catch, so he needs to secure the ball all the way to the ground. That little wiggle isn't much, but it's just enough that the debate can be had that the ground jostled the ball loose. 

By the rule, that makes this play an incompletion. Yes he gets control and yes he turns upfield, but it isn't to become a runner. The fact is: If the ball moves once a receiver hits the ground, historically speaking the referees are going to rule it incomplete. People always talk about wanting consistency out of officials -- they are consistent on this call. It's just in a way that favors the defense in these cases, and "looks bad."

Hate the rule, not the officials

Here's the bottom line: The rule is a necessary evil. What people seem to want is "catches should be determined by whether or not it looks like a catch." In theory, that's great, but the components and mechanics of making a catch and a move don't work. Wonky end zone rules don't apply to catches -- it's not like breaking the plane as a runner where it's "good enough." 

The alternative is that these plays turn into fumbles when they're outside of the end zone. Controversy begets controversy in some cases, and there's no "easy answer." Fans want consistency, and they're getting it, yet the reaction seems to be consistently negative.

The fact is that there are arguments and debates to be had on what these rules need to be. Perhaps they'll be had this offseason. However, as it stands, a catch is still murky by nature, because when is a play truly "over," particularly in the end zone? The league is still trying to determine that, but they've been surprisingly clear that what seem like 50/50 calls in the end zone aren't really 50/50. It needs to be clearly a touchdown -- or else it isn't.

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