What defines a catch in the NFL has been 100 percent unclear since the moment the ball hit the Soldier Field turf as Calvin Johnson lifted himself from the ground back in 2010. Since then, we’ve been barraged by meaningless, vague phrases like "completing the process," "going to the ground" and "becoming a runner." The poor manipulation of the rulebook in the following six years have made us no closer to properly understanding and identifying what constitutes as something that should be so elementary to football: a catch.
Well, the NFL — bless their heart — is still trying to figure this out. The league released the 2016 rulebook to the public this week and the section on catches had another alteration to it this year:
The first part is the same. A player must A) secure the ball with his hands before the ball touches the ground and B) get both feet inbounds or one part of the body other than the hands inbounds. If the receiver fulfills both of those things, he must then hold the ball long enough to become a runner. Here’s where things get complicated. This is how the NFL defines becoming 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 warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up field or taking additional steps."
The rule starts off well, clearly stating the receiver needs to get two feet on the ground, but then the subjectiveness kicks in. What constitutes the capability of warding off impending contact? When is a ball fully tucked away? Not to mention, the rule leaves a major loophole in it. The player doesn’t even have to commit any of these acts to become a runner, they just have to be capable of those acts. How can you identify when a player is capable of warding off contact as opposed to...you know...warding off contact?
Let’s use this new definition against an example from last year. One of the most controversial calls in 2015 involved Golden Tate. We broke down the play and ruling last year, but here’s the gist of it: Tate caught the ball as he was crossing the goal line, took two steps, and as he was coming down for a third step, the ball was jarred loose and eventually intercepted. The original call on the field was an interception, but it was overturned and called a touchdown upon review. Here’s a look at the play:
Now under the new rule, is this a touchdown? It doesn’t appear he makes an effort to avoid contact. He doesn’t appear to tuck the ball away, but that isn’t clearly defined by the rulebook anyway. He doesn’t turn upfield. And it is still unclear if Tate took any additional steps after the necessary two.
While the NFL is doing the right thing in investigating their catch rules, they are eventually making the wrong decision by adding clauses and subsection upon subsection of each rule. In a game of infinite scenarios, simplicity in the rulebook is key. Control of the ball, two feet down. That really solves most problems with the rule.