clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The NFL's New Rules on Pass Receptions Often Defy Logic and Leave Fans Confused and Frustrated

About five years ago, I was playing in a flag football game. It was a pretty intense and exciting affair, and the contest came down to the end. My team was trailing, 19-13, but we were driving and had the ball on about the 15 yard line in the final seconds. In the huddle, the quarterback, my brother-in-law, told me to run down the right sideline and do an out in the corner of the end zone. When the play started, I did as I was told, but I wasn't open. Well, being the savvy vet that I was, I didn't just stand there while my quarterback scrambled around. Beings that all the other receivers and defenders were heading to my side of the end zone, I decided to run all the way across to the other side. My brother-in-law recognized what I was doing and hit me with a beautiful pass. I caught the ball, had it cradled under my arm and took two or three steps. But, just as I was about to hold the football up in a celebratory manner, it squirted from my possession and hit the ground. However, I know what a legit catch is and knew that I had full possession of that football. But the referee said it was an incomplete pass. When I told him that I took two or three steps with it clearly in my possession, the only thing he could come up with was that I was bobbling the football before I dropped it. I couldn't believe it, neither could my teammates. Heck, even players from other teams who were just standing around waiting for their game to start knew that was a catch.

That brings me to today's NFL and its new rules regarding pass receptions.

As you probably know, there was a controversial ruling in the Bengals/Ravens game on Sunday. Late in the game, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw a short pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham inside the five yard line. Gresham bobbled the football before gathering it in and crossing the goal line. It looked like a perfectly legal (if a bit unorthodox) touchdown reception. Only problem was, Gresham didn't maintain possession after he was tackled in the end zone, therefore, the touchdown was soon overturned.

Just a couple of weeks ago in the game against Baltimore, Hines Ward appeared to make a catch over the middle before being clocked in the head by Ray Lewis. Ward had possession of the football when he hit the turf. However, the ball was pried loose by another Ravens' defender after Ward hit the ground. The officials ruled it a catch on the field, but John Harbaugh challenged the call, and the play was eventually reversed because Ward didn't maintain possession all the way through until the end of the play.

This might all seem like sour grapes to you (especially if you're a Ravens fan).

OK, I'll give you that, but I have an example from a Steelers victory over Baltimore. Remember the AFC Championship between the Steelers and Ravens following the 2008 season? Early in the game, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back from the 25 yard line and hit Santonio Holmes with a pass at about the five yard line. Santonio cradled the ball in his arm, took two steps and then lunged towards the end zone. Holmes appeared to cross the plane of the goal line with the football, but the officials ruled him down just inside the one yard line. Mike Tomlin tried to challenge the play because he thought it was a touchdown. However, John Harbaugh beat Tomlin to the punch and challenged that it was ever a catch in the first place. I was laughing. It was clearly a catch, and even the guys on the CBS telecast were commenting that not only would the officials see that Holmes, indeed, caught the football, but that the ball crossed the goal line, as well.

Well, I'll be damned if the play wasn't ruled an incomplete pass. You know why? As Holmes dove for the end zone, the ball briefly squirted out.

In recent years, the NFL has changed its rules and sort of redefined was a completion is. Now, a receiver must maintain possession of the football all the way until the end of the play. For example, if a receiver catches a football, cradles it in his arm, but it pops out after he hits the ground, it's considered an incomplete pass.

Alright, so the officials made the right calls on the plays that I referenced, so what is my beef? Well, it's pretty simple. Just like in that flag football game, I know a catch when I see one. Click on the link to the Ward hit and tell me that it wasn't a catch. Maybe by the letter of the rule, it wasn't a legal catch, but come on.

For my money, just because you drop something, that doesn't necessarily mean you didn't possess it, initially. For instance, if someone throws you a set of keys, and you catch them but drop the keys when you go to put them in your pocket, you still caught the keys, right? I mean, you would have had to catch the keys in-order to make the move to put them in your pocket, correct? But if the NFL ruled on that, they would say that you never fully possessed those keys.

For years, an incomplete pass was called when a receiver never fully had control of the football. Picture trying to catch a hot potato and bobbling it over and over again until you eventually drop it because it's just too darn hot. Or how about trying to catch a wet bar of soap? Often times, the soap will just slip right through your hands because it's just so darn slippery. If you were never able to fully grasp that potato, or if that bar of soap just slipped through your fingers, nobody would ever accuse you of having possession of either of those items; one would reasonably say that you dropped them. That's how an incomplete pass used to be viewed in the NFL. If a receiver bobbled a football until it hit the ground, that was a drop. If the darn thing slipped right through his fingers, that was considered a drop.

However, if a receiver caught a football and possessed it for an adequate amount of time, that was considered a catch. If a defender came along and pried the thing out of the receiver's hands as he tackled him to the ground, it was either considered a fumble, or the receiver was called down by contact. And if a player caught the football in the end zone and had two feet in-bounds, it didn't matter what happened after that. If the ball came out after the player was tackled to the ground, for example, so what? It was a touchdown because the ball had already crossed the plane of the goal line, and the receiver had established firm possession.

Sadly, those days are over. Now a receiver must catch a football and then place it all the way down in his virtual pocket before it's officially considered a legal reception.

I reference Pittsburgh radio personality Stan Savran a lot, and for good reason. The man knows what he's talking about. The other day I was listening to his show on ESPN 970am, and he brought up a really good point: If the ground cannot cause a fumble, why can it cause an incomplete pass?

And what I really don't understand is how a pass can be considered incomplete even AFTER a player tries to do more with the football in his possession.

Back to the Santonio Holmes play in the AFC Championship game. If Holmes had the ball long enough to take two steps and dive for the goal line, how can one rationally say it wasn't a catch? If Holmes was tackled immediately after making the reception, it would have stood. But by trying to do more with the ball in his possession, the play was ruled incomplete just because it came loose while he dove? Again, I know that under the letter of the recent rule change, Holmes couldn't be credited with a catch because he didn't maintain possession until the play was over. But again, I know a catch when I see one. You know a catch when you see one, and Santonio Holmes caught that football.

It's a good thing these new rules weren't in effect back in the mid-90's. If they were, the Steelers may not have ever made it to Super Bowl XXX.

The Steelers defeated the Indianapolis Colts in a very exciting AFC Championship game in January of 1996, and one of the most memorable plays from that game was the Neil O'Donnell-to-Ernie Mills 38-yard hook-up down to the one yard line with less than two- minutes remaining and the Steelers trailing by three points. If you remember that play, you know Mills caught that football, right? I mean, it clearly passed the good old eye test. However, in today's NFL, that play would have been reviewed and the pass ruled incomplete because Mills lost the football after he was smacked out of bounds.

In a way, it's kind of refreshing that there is a rule that so heavily favors the defense in today's pass-happy NFL. It's just a shame that the rule often-times goes against logic and common-sense.

To repeat, I know a catch when I see one.