How To Fix the Catch Rule

The catch rule is a farce at this point, and we all know it. Reactions to controversial plays are often strong on social media. Announcers actively comment on the confusion over the broadcast. Players and coaches stand with dumbfounded looks on their faces as the call comes in.

One thing I haven’t heard much of is specific ways to fix it. After last season, the “time element” of the rule changed. It went from the player needing to perform “an act common to the game” to needing to “clearly become a runner.” Obviously, as we saw in the 2015 season, this change didn’t help much.

To some, the rule may seem unfixable. It might be a necessary evil, so to speak. But I think there are two specific changes that could be made that would change the way we look at this rule.


First things first, let us established that this rule needs to be somewhat complicated. That might immediately put you off given what the rule has looked like for years, but think about it — “complicated” doesn’t inherently equal “confusing.” There are plenty of complicated rules in sports that have become second nature to us because they can be applied consistently. The reason no one knows what constitutes a catch is not because the rule is too complicated, it’s because the rule has always been poorly conceived, and it has been patched and made more complicated from the point of that poor conception.

There’s one major point of contention with the current rule that has to stay — the rule needs some kind of time element. As I mentioned, that element is extremely arbitrary at present, and the offseason work to try to fix it didn’t help. Still, the nature of these plays requires a rule that clarifies how long the player needs to have the ball.


Allow me to explain what I see as the biggest disconnect between the currently accepted interpretation of what the rulebook says is a catch and what our eyes say is a catch. In the rulebook interpretation, the time element doesn’t start until a player has control AND has two feet down. That’s when the arbitrary clock — the time element — starts. From that point, we ask the question, “Did he have it long enough?”

One consequence of this interpretation is a player can actually be penalized for how long he stays in the air. If he catches the ball at its highest point, the consideration of whether he performed an act common to the game doesn’t start until he has landed. Think of the Dez Bryant play from the 2014 playoffs.

Theoretically, a player could clearly control the football in his hands for multiple seconds while in the air, but any review wouldn’t consider how long he had it until he lands.

Addressing this disconnect is step one. Whether a player controlled the ball long enough should start the moment he possesses the ball in his hands, whether in the air or on the ground.

This disconnect is exactly why we get so worked up about plays that look like catches to our eyes — think of controversial calls of the past like the original Calvin Johnson play. Johnson held the ball firmly while in the air, but the consideration of whether he performed the requisite act with the ball didn’t start until he landed with both feet down, and therefore when the ground jarred the ball lose moments later, it was ruled incomplete. Had some form of time element been applied from the moment he controlled the ball in the air, he certainly would have been deemed to have controlled it for long enough.


A byproduct of the first adjustment is the necessity to reconsider the time element associated with the rule (yet again). As I mentioned, this aspect has already been reconsidered once before. The problem is that terms like “an act common to the game” are ambiguous enough to have created the disconnect addressed above. Obviously a player cannot perform an act common to the game while still in midair, so naturally the player must land first, or so the interpretation has gone.

Rather than a group of words that can be interpreted differently by different people — players, fans, coaches, and even different refs — why not use something more specific. More exact. Why not use… time?

It may seem almost too exact, but seriously, just use a damn clock.

Whether it’s one second, one-and-a-half seconds, some other number… the exact time parameter isn’t important here. (Plus I haven’t looked at enough plays to determine what that time period should be, but it shouldn’t be too difficult.)

If you denote a specific time requirement for control, the debate would be limited to, “when did he start having continuous control?” and beyond that it’s a simple matter of determining whether that control was maintained for the required amount of time.


The aspect of what control is wouldn’t change from what it is now. There are some clarifications about how the receiver can pin the ball against his body, or how his hands cannot slide around on the ball (whether because of the ground or otherwise). Those might also be controversial aspects of the rule, but the suggestions in this piece wouldn’t change any of that (for better or worse).

With respect to the changes mentioned here, you’d simply need to clarify that control only relates to the ball in the player’s possession, and doesn’t require all the aspects of a completed catch (i.e. getting two feet or a knee down in bounds). If you’ve established that, the new rule could be written such that having control for the amount of time necessary and then also, separately, completing all the other aspects of a catch — before losing that control — would constitute a catch.


Let’s discuss a couple benefits before wrapping this up. One is there would be no more nonsense about needing to complete the catch if you go to the ground. A new time element would remove the necessity for that clarification.

Another would be the way it would help out the officials. In a review situation, they would be able to explain very clearly what happened, what they are ruling, and why they are ruling that way. (Imagine the uncertainty we currently face in review situations being replaced by something like, “After review, the player only maintained control for eight-tenths of a second. By rule, he did not control the ball long enough to constitute possession, and it is therefore an incomplete pass.” It sounds kind of ridiculous, but: a) we would get used to it; and b) it would be significantly better than what we get now.)

Generally speaking, and most importantly for everyone invested in these calls, it would take a lot of the ambiguity out of it. It would still be a complicated rule, yes, but complicated rules can become second nature in practice. We would watch at home — and they would watch in the replay booth — and we’d all know what we were looking for and would much more frequently come to the same conclusion about whether those conditions were met.

And let’s be honest, that’s all we want.

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