Catch rule not bad, but clarification needed

September 13th, 2010 - 9:09 pm

Ever since the officiating crew of the Bears-Lions game correctly ruled that Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson did not complete his reception in the end zone in the final minute of the game, the internet has blown up with angry fans, and not just in the city of Detroit.

It seems like a majority of the fans are crying foul that the refs “robbed” the Lions of a touchdown and, seemingly, a victory. Even when presented with the definition of the rule, they’re still in denial.

To me, the situation was pretty cut-and-dried. The rule states that when a player is going to the ground, he has to maintain control of the ball throughout the “process.” The ball came loose as Johnson was rolling over. Therefore, it’s an incomplete pass.

If you got pulled over by a police officer for going one mile per hour over the speed limit, you’re breaking the law — and the rules of the road — and that cop has the right to give you a ticket. Whether you think it’s fair or not, those are the rules.

All day long, I’ve heard the phrase “bad rule” used to describe it. It’s not a bad rule. It’s an incomplete rule. There’s a difference.

I’ll get into why it’s an incomplete rule in a second, but first let me explain why it’s a good — and necessary — rule. Every football fan who has been watching football for at least the past 11 years knows of the “Bert Emanuel rule.” In the 1999 NFC conference championship game, the Rams and Buccaneers were playing and Tampa Bay wide receiver Bert Emanuel made a terrific diving catch. The referee reviewed the play and determined that the ball had touched the ground despite Emanuel having control of it. The Rams went on to win the game and the Super Bowl.

Up to that point, there was a rule that said if any part of the ball touched the ground despite control, it was an incomplete pass. The league felt this was unfair so they came up with a rule that says if a receiver has control of the ball, it doesn’t matter if it touches the ground. However, this rule in and of itself could cause problems because what happens if the ball moves when it touches the ground? Suddenly, the receiver is no longer “in possession” of the ball.

Hence, that’s where the current catch rule comes into play. Officials — and the league, specifically — want to make sure a player actually has possession of the ball, which is why they made the rule that anywhere on the field, when a receiver is going to the ground with the catch, he has to maintain possession of the ball and the ball cannot move throughout the process of the catch.

Now that I’ve explained why the rule is necessary — for fairness of those receivers who make great catches even when the ball touches the ground — here’s why the rule needs clarification:

Nowhere in the definition of that particular rule does it explain when the “process” of the catch ends. It is assumed that the “process” of the catch ends when the receiver makes a second move. For instance, in baseball, when attempting to turn a double play, if the player standing on second bobbles the ball before attempting to throw the ball to first, the runner at second is safe. But if the defender bobbles the ball “on the transfer” in an effort to turn the double play, the runner at second is still out.

So, I agree with all those fans who feel that Johnson’s catch should have counted because it’s my belief that when he placed the ball on the ground, he was making his move to get up and start celebrating. However, there’s a loophole because no language in the rulebook explains when the “process” is over.

Therefore, complain all you want, fans, but it is not a “bad” rule. It’s just an incomplete rule that I’m sure will be addressed in the off-season.

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