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Why The NFL's Rule, Referee's Interpretation Of Calvin Johnson's No Catch Are Wrong

The controversial finish to yesterday's Lions-Bears game has generated a national debate over both the call and the rule that kept Calvin Johnson from scoring what could have been the game-winning touchdown for Detroit. I think almost everyone can agree that the rule that made the pass incomplete stinks; there doesn't seem to be much disagreement there. Some disagreement can be found on the topic of the interpretation of the call, however. It seems as though many fans, both of the Lions and of other teams, believe the rule was incorrectly interpreted, whereas many of the national pundits think there was no issue with the interpretation, just the rule itself.

I've gone back and forth on this a bit as I watched replays of Johnson's no catch and still believe that the rule itself was not interpreted correctly. While I can see where those believing the correct call was made based on the rule are coming from, to me Johnson made a catch, even based on the awful rule currently in place.

First things first, let's look at the rules that the incomplete call was based on. For example, what is a catch based on the NFL rulebook? (continued after the jump)

Article 3. Completed or Intercepted Pass. 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 inbounds:

(a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
(b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands.
. . .

If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body other than his hands to the ground, or if there is any doubt that the acts were simultaneous, it is not a catch.

Based on that part of the rule, Johnson made a catch. The caveat is the "Item 1" portion of the rule, which deals with going to the ground.

Item 1: Player Going to the Ground. 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 after he touches 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.

This specific item is the main problem with the rule, because there is nothing specific about how long a player must maintain control of the ball after he touches the ground. It simply states that he must maintain control after touching the ground, which is where the idea of this being a process comes from. The problem is there is nothing about how long of a process this is, which leaves the rule open to complete interpretation. While some, including the officials, may see the play and think it was incomplete, others, like myself, believe it was a catch.

Think of it this way: If Calvin Johnson goes up and makes a catch and then goes to the ground, lays there with the ball in his hands for 10 minutes and then drops it as he's getting up, is that a catch or not? According to the rule, Johnson "must maintain control of the ball after he touches the ground." Because nothing is specified about just how long he must maintain control, an official could theoretically rule the pass incomplete despite Johnson having the ball in his hands for 10 minutes. Then again, because the length of this process is not specified, an official could also rule that Johnson made the catch, as it is unreasonable to call it incomplete after he was on the ground with the ball for 10 minutes. Clearly that would be a catch; it's just this crappy rule makes it possible for it to be called incomplete.

Going forward, I don't think there's any doubt that this rule needs to be changed or at the very least cleared up. With the way it is worded right now, a player could theoretically make a catch, maintain possession after hitting the ground and then have the pass ruled incomplete because he simply handed the ball to an official. There is nothing in the rules about a second act, such as the receiver getting up off the ground, and there most certainly is nothing about how long he must maintain possession of the ball. While a player almost certainly would have the play ruled a catch if he gets up off the ground with the ball, the rule is so ambiguous that you could come up with many scenarios where an obvious catch could be interpreted as being incomplete.

I think we can all agree at this point that the rule and the way it is worded need to be changed, as it is just too vague right now. It doesn't help the matter when you have this added caveat a couple items later, making things even more confusing for the officials:

Item 3: End Zone Catches. If a player catches the ball while in the end zone, both feet must be completely on the ground before losing possession, or the pass is incomplete.

Again, the NFL rulebook needs some changing, as Item 3 comes into contradiction with Item 1 and again leaves things open to too much interpretation. For example, based on Item 3, Johnson made a catch. He caught the ball in the end zone and got both feet down before losing possession.

Even if you want to base what happened solely on Item 1, I still think it's a catch. Remember, "he must maintain control of the ball after he touches the ground." Well, Johnson maintained control as he put his two feet down, he maintained control as his leg and knee hit the ground, he maintained control as his butt hit the ground and he maintained control as his left arm hit the ground. At what point is Johnson actually considered on the ground, allowing for it to be determined that he maintained control after touching the ground? To me it's after his leg, arm and butt are all down. The ball came out only after he started to roll over and hit the ground with it, which is a second act if you ask me. Better yet, I consider the second act to be anything after the referee closest to him signaled a touchdown, indicating that the play was over and the ball could be let go of.

I can certainly understand why others would interpret this process of going to the ground differently, because the rule is terrible. That is how referee Gene Steratore came up with this explanation following the game:

Q. What is the rule used on the near Detroit touchdown at the end of the game?
A. The ruling is that in order for the catch to be completed he has got to maintain possession of the ball throughout the entire process of the catch.

Q. He was on his behind before he rolled over. If he stayed on his behind would it have been a touchdown?
A. No. We don’t play with the two feet or one knee or anything of that scenario. We’re talking now about the process of the catch. He’s catching the football, as he goes to the ground, he must maintain possession of the ball throughout the entire process. So as he continues to fall if he fell with two feet and his elbow hit the ground and came out it would be incomplete.

Q. It looked like he had the ball up in one hand while on his rear end, but there was continuation?
A. Well, the process was not finished until he finished that roll and the entire process of that catch.

Here's my main issue with this whole call: The rule does not outline a process of completing the catch. Again, "he must maintain control of the ball after he touches the ground." That is what the rule states. It does not say anything about a process of the catch or how Johnson's "roll" must be finished before this so-called process is complete. All the rule says is that Johnson must maintain control of the ball after he touches the ground. Well, to me he did just that, which is why I do believe the Lions were robbed of a win or at the very least taking the lead with less than 30 seconds to play and having a very good chance of winning.

At the end of the day, I harbor no ill will toward the referee, because he simply interpreted the NFL's terribly worded and extremely vague rule about going to the ground and making a catch in his own way. I don't think his interpretation is correct, but that is apparently because he and I have different definitions about touching the ground and how long this so-called process must last. In that regard, the NFL is squarely to blame, as it needs to clear up its own rules about catches. After all, this was ruled a catch in last season's Super Bowl ...

... yet this was incomplete because Johnson only touched his leg, knee, butt and arm on the ground before losing control of the ball:

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