How the NFL will (try to) rewrite the catch rule

What will simplified catch rule look like? (2:14)

Former NFL competition committee member Bill Polian expertly explains how complicated it will be to simplify the catch rule. (2:14)

Editor's note: This story was originally published on March 9. The NFL's competition committee has since announced its proposed three elements for a new catch rule: Control, in bounds and a "football move" (or the ability to perform a football move). The proposal mirrors the discussion below, most notably the potential for swapping one set of controversies for another.

The easy part is done. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in January that the league's pesky catch rule must change. Then New York Giants co-owner John Mara said last week that there is a consensus among competition committee members to prevent future instances of two notorious catch controversies: Calvin Johnson's in 2010 and Dez Bryant's in 2014.

But figuring out how to do it, Mara admitted, is harder than it sounds.

"We're going to try," he said. "It's easy to say the rule has got to be changed, but coming up with the right language is a challenge."

The committee hopes to eliminate the source of the controversy -- a requirement to maintain control of the ball throughout the process of going to the ground -- while avoiding new pitfalls. Some people with deep experience in this long-running conundrum are skeptical it can be done, even as Goodell pushes for a proposal to present to owners during the March 25-28 league meetings.

"The first rule," said former competition committee member Bill Polian, "is 'do no harm.'"

So what next? Let's examine where the committee appears likely to land, then we'll consider the potential flaws and present a few more radical ideas. Let's do this!

Hold up. What exactly is the problem here?

There are three parts to a legal catch. The first two are simple: A receiver must (1) control the ball and (2) establish himself in bounds.

The third part is trickier. Before possession is awarded, the receiver must have control and be in bounds for a period of time. It's especially problematic when the receiver goes to the ground. NFL rules currently say that he must control the ball throughout the process of falling. Both Bryant and Johnson, and perhaps Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James last season, lost control before they completed that process.

So what will the committee propose to fix it?

As I understand it, the idea is to reconceptualize the third part. There would no longer be a distinction for players going to the ground. In its place would be a requirement to perform an act "common to the game" -- a "football move" -- that could apply both to players who are on their feet or falling.

The idea makes sense in a vacuum.

Fox Sports analyst Dean Blandino listened to numerous proposals during two separate efforts to rewrite the catch rule when he was the NFL's senior vice president of officiating from 2013 to 2017. Based on the clues Mara and others have provided, here's how Blandino said he would word the pending proposal:

"If a receiver has control, has two feet or another body part down and then clearly performs an act common to the game -- and you define that act, whether that's reaching the ball out for additional yardage, whether it's tucking the ball away, whatever it is -- and he clearly performs that act common to the game, then any subsequent loss of control does not make the pass incomplete.

"By performing an act common to the game, you have demonstrated possession and completed the catch. I think that's the easiest way to make those plays catches."

It seems that the precise definition of an "act common to the game" is quite important.

Indeed, that's what Mara referenced when he mentioned the challenge of "coming up with the right language."

What is the best way to define it? One suggestion is to count steps. After a receiver establishes himself in bounds, he would need to take, say, two or three steps. That would qualify as an act common to the game, or a football move. A receiver going to the ground can still take steps, as Bryant did during his 2014 play.

"That's easily officiated by replay," said Polian, now an ESPN analyst. "That would be a nod toward the fact that replay is not going away, and it would make it easier to officiate."

It's fair to ask, of course, whether the NFL really wants a rule that relies on replay to officiate.

"Of all the passes in a season," Blandino said, "maybe 100 or 150 of them go to replay. You have to be careful about writing rules for that minority of plays when the majority of plays are being officiated in real time and not even going to replay."

Former NFL official Jim Daopoulos, on the other hand, proposed general terms that afford on-field officials maximum judgment and discretion.

"If he has the ball," Daopoulos said, "can he pitch back to another player? Can he move forward with it? Can he put it away and run with it? Those are the things that I would look for in a football move. Can he do something with that football?"

Why can't the NFL just trust officials to "know it when they see it"?

Daopoulos would be all in favor of that.

"I think the guys on the field know what a football move is," he said. "You get a feel for what goes on when a guy is in the process of making the catch. Sometimes you have to make gut calls on that. I really think that the individuals on the field are capable of making the decision of what a football move is and has he made the catch? That's their job. That's what they get paid to do. We put the best guys out there to make this decision and let them use their experience and knowledge to make a judgment."

Either way, wouldn't this just swap the source of controversy?

That's a very likely outcome.

"If the receiver performs an act common to the game," Blandino said, "if he performs a football move, whatever you want to call it, on the way to the ground, if you say that supersedes him having to hold the ball all the way to the ground, then that adds another layer of judgment for the official and in replay.

"You're just shifting the debate from, 'Was he going to the ground and did he hold on to it?' to 'Did he make a football move?'"

Then why can't the NFL just eliminate that third "time" element entirely? A catch could be control and in bounds. Period.

That sounds nice, but there are at least two obstacles in that suggestion.

First, it would mean that control, even for an instant, would count as a reception. There would be a fair number of "bang-bang" plays -- when the ball lands in the receiver's hand(s) but is immediately separated by a defensive hit -- to be ruled a catch. Would that look any better than an incomplete pass when going to the ground?

"Control, two feet down and a big hit has to be an incomplete pass," Polian said. "Why? Because if those are complete passes, they will have to be considered fumbles. And we do not want more fumbles. They cause melees. Players are out of control, diving for the ball. They're very difficult to officiate. We've done that for decades. Bang-bang plays have to stay incomplete passes. That's wholly my view."

What's the other obstacle?

In 2015, the NFL gave "defenseless player" protection to receivers who are in the process of making the catch. That prevents defensive players from hitting them in the head or neck area before they have a chance to protect themselves.

"So, anytime you shorten that time period to make it a catch," Blandino said, "you're now going to shorten the time that the receiver is protected. So that is another challenge, because obviously you're dealing with player safety."

The NFL isn't going to do anything that can even be perceived as a risk to safety.

So in reality, the idea of eliminating the time element is a nonstarter.

Then how about if the NFL just removes the catch rule from replay? After all, two of the three plays in question -- Bryant's and James' -- were reversed by replay from catches to incompletions.

That would solve just about everything, according to Daopoulos. In his view, a catch rule needs to have subjective interpretation, something that is fundamentally impossible if it is subject to replay.

"My feeling is that replay has screwed this whole thing up," he said. "That's why I'm thinking that we should let these guys who have all the experience and do all the games, let them make these decisions. You talk about the obvious calls. How many of the very obvious ones are they going to miss?"

It might be tough to stuff that genie back in the bottle, however. Fans and teams would still see the replay, probably in slow motion, and could be equally frustrated to realize there is no replay remedy available.

"As technology has gotten better," Blandino said, "and fans have the ability to look at these things and run them back and forth, you kind of feel the need to be able to do it with replay on the officiating side."

Shouldn't replay officials be told not to reverse anything other than clear and obvious mistakes?

Actually, they already are. "Clear and obvious" is the precise mandate in the NFL rulebook. But everyone agrees that the competition committee must find a way to reinforce that requirement after a number of interpretative stumbles in 2017.

"I would write the rule in such a way," Polian said, "that the last sentence or the last couple of sentences are, 'The replay official will not overturn any portion of the rule without complete and indisputable visual evidence.' I would underline the phrase 'will not.' It has not been emphasized enough. Give him his marching orders. Stay with the call on the field unless you have absolutely indisputable evidence."

What are players and coaches saying about this? Will they like the change?

Probably, although most of them simply want to know what the rule is so they can do their best to follow it. Most would appreciate the removal of what they consider an inorganic insertion into the rule book. Here's how Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien put it in December: "I do think if it's a catch in the backyard, high school and college, then all of a sudden you get to the NFL and it's not a catch, there's something we have to look at."

Don't some people think the problem is the "Emanuel rule?"

They do. As you might recall, Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Bert Emanuel had what appeared to be a reception ruled incomplete because the ball touched the ground -- even though he had clear control -- on a key play in a 1999 NFC Championship Game loss to the St. Louis Rams.

At the time, NFL rules said a pass was incomplete whenever the ball touched the ground. The league changed the rule after the Emanuel play to allow officials to judge whether the ball was under control by the receiver when it hit the ground. If so, the play could be called a catch.

Polian, for one, believes that it led to much of the current confusion. It is more difficult to officiate, because a referee -- or replay official -- must determine whether the receiver controlled the ball when it touched the ground.

It also lessened the need for players to keep the ball off the ground in the first place. Even under the current rule, a player can avoid the "going to the ground" mess if he simply keeps it in his hands.

"This would make players more conscious of putting the ball on the ground," Polian said.

Wouldn't that also trade one set of headaches for another?

Perhaps. Those of us who are old enough can remember a few Emanuel-type plays arising every season. It is easy to officiate but sometimes hard to accept as an incompletion.

So where does this all leave us?

The informed guess is that the competition committee will propose a rewriting that eliminates the requirement to go to the ground and redefines what it means to make a "football move" in order to account for the time element. Ultimately, it will be up to officials to interpret what it means and put it into practice on the field.

In other words, the "Calvin Johnson/Dez Bryant" debate will end, but new controversies likely will arise.

"What gets lost in this is that the sheer number of pass plays every year is 17,000 or 18,000," Blandino said. "And we're only talking about, what, five or six of them? That's what it seems to be every year. Obviously they're controversial, but I think [previously] the committee ultimately felt they didn't want to make a change for five or six plays that could impact more plays in other ways. That's part of the challenge they have now."