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Explaining the differences in ruling a touchdown in the NFL

What is a touchdown? It all depends in the NFL.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

As the 2023 offseason presses on towards the start of the new league year and the NFL draft, there are a number of things about the NFL as a whole that get discussed both here at Behind The Steel Curtain and on various other outlets. Sometimes I like to take the time when I see something brought up in multiple locations to try to bring some clarity to the subject. This time, I’m going to attempt to make some kind of sense about the rules behind what is a touchdown catch in the NFL.

Specifically, I want to bring some clarity to this question that I have seen asked in multiple forms in many places:

“Why can a player dive towards the end zone and the ball barely crosses the goal line or hits the pylon and they can it have it stripped away or lose possession and it still be a touchdown but yet a receiver must catch the ball, get 2 feet down, do the Macarena, and still it will be questioned if it is a touchdown?”

I understand the reasoning behind the question. But the answer in this case is actually very simple. It all comes down to possession of the ball.

When a player is diving for the end zone or reaching the ball out above a scrum of bodies in order to score, they already have possession of the ball and do not have the burden of establishing possession. When a player has possession in the field of play, all the ball has to do is have some part of it break the plane of the end zone and the play is over and scored a touchdown. There is no burden of surviving the ground or anything of that matter. This is based solely on the fact that the player already had possession before reaching the goal line.

When it comes to catching a touchdown pass in the end zone, it is a completely different story. In order for the player to have the ball for a touchdown, they must officially have possession. They do not have possession in the field of play first and therefore must have possession in the end zone. In order to be ruled to possess the ball, a player must secure the ball and have 2 feet (or the equivalent) inbounds and complete a third phase of the process.

What is interesting is the third phase of the catch does not have to be in bounds for the play to be considered a catch. What kind of things can be considered a third phase? It could be a third step, a different body part touching the ground, a change in direction (turning up field), or simply falling to the ground. But throughout this third phase, despite not having to be inbounds, possession must be maintained or else the whole process begins again with the “2 feet equivalent” needing to happen inbounds.

So the reason why there appears to be a different standard when it comes to catching the ball in the end zone versus reaching the ball towards the goal line is because they are completely different plays. Having possession in the field of play outside of the end zone is governed by one set of rules while getting possession on a pass in the end zone is governed by something else completely.

I’m sure there are plenty out there who understood this concept already and how it’s a different set of rules for these different situation‘s. But if you were one of the NFL fans who did not realize why these were different situations, hopefully this brought some clarity to the issue.