(photo above by PAUL SPINELLI/Associated Press)
ORLANDO —Of the many proposed rule changes that will be voted on by owners at this week's annual league meetings, none has been more discussed and debated than the changes that the NFL Competition Committee wants to make to the catch rule.
Over the years, the league has continuously tweaked the catch rule, and after spending a lot of time on the rule this offseason, the Competition Committee "realized that was the problem," said Rich McKay, the Chairman of the NFL Competition Committee and the president and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons. So rather than make more tweaks, the Competition Committee started over.
"We've basically rewritten the rule," said Al Riveron, the NFL's senior vice president of officiating.
The proposed new catch rule, which owners will vote upon before the meetings wrap up later this week, is much more simplified, language wise. Now, as Riveron explains it, a catch will require control of the ball with two feet down, followed by a football move, which can mean a third step or reaching with the ball to gain extra yardage.
Gone is the requirement of "surviving to the ground," an element of the catch rule that in recent years has turned several plays that look like catches into incomplete passes after review, most notably Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant's non-catch near the goal line in a playoff game against Green Bay. Under the new proposed rule, that would have been a catch, as would another catch-turned-non-catch after review, Steelers tight end Jesse James' apparent go-ahead touchdown catch in a 2017 loss to New England.
"The rule's a lot clearer, and it allows for these great catches to be catches," Riveron said.
If the new catch rule allows for more great catches, the downside, from an offensive perspective at least, would be more fumbles. That brings us to another play Riveron covered during Monday's press conference, a play from Seattle's Week 10 win over Arizona. With the Cardinals driving late in the second quarter, Cardinals running back Andre Ellington caught a pass, then gained roughly 7 yards running and falling forward before going to the ground. The ball popped out, and since Ellington hadn't been touched by a defender, officials on the field ruled it a fumble, which was recovered by Kam Chancellor. After review, however, it was decided Ellington hadn't survived to the ground, and therefore the Cardinals maintained possession.
"That was a hard one to explain to our fans," Riveron said.
If the proposed new rule passes, Dez would have caught it, James would have scored, and the Seahawks would have had a turnover late in the half. One thing Riveron noted about this change is it moves the catch closer to what officials see on the field. In all of the examples noted above, officials initially ruled a catch, then overturned it upon review.
Another change brought up by the Competition Committee is that when a runner (usually a quarterback in this case) gives himself up, the ball is spotted where he goes down, regardless of whether he dives head first or slides. That change is due to the fact that defenders were left in a position of uncertainty when a runner started to go down, and if they didn't hit a player diving head first, that player could slide or roll several extra yards.
"It's not fair to a defensive player," McKay said.