The rematch Dallas Cowboys fans have been clamoring for is upon us. Let’s revisit again why “it was a catch” is insupportably wrong.
An earlier version of this article was originally published in The Hit Job January 12, 2015.
Now that the NFL Twittersphere has had time to adjust a bit to the Catch That Wasn’t, the emerging narrative from those not sporting Dallas Cowboys star tattoos is simply this: Bad rule; correct call.
No. That’s only half right.
Yes, it was the correct call. The rules are not mysterious on this topic. The so-called “Calvin Johnson rule” has been in place for many years. Educated and semi-educated NFL fans are well aware that pass receptions that involve receivers that tumble to the ground are required to maintain possession of the ball all the way through the process of the catch. This includes if the ball contacts the ground.
In the Dez Bryant Catch That Wasn’t, Bryant made contact with the ball, bobbled it a bit, ultimately collected it in one hand and hit the ground. This is only part of the catch process.
The Cowboys’ narrative is that Bryant took “two” or “three” or “multiple” steps (thus completing a “football move”) on his way to the ground with the ball in-hand. This is deceptive in the use of the verb “took.” Yes, we have to dive into semantics to fully comprehend what happened. Sorry.
Bryant did not “take” steps with the ball in possession. He was falling. As part of his effort to collect the ball, his momentum took him to the ground. This means he must maintain possession throughout the process of the catch in order for it to be considered a completed pass.
If you don’t know this, you should. It is fundamental to the NFL game. It is not an exotic circumstance that rarely happens. The truth is that it happens multiple times a game, every game. Many, if not most, NFL receptions involve a receiver going to the ground at or immediately after the point of a reception. The rule is applied then and always.
Remove Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields from the equation. Despite Shields’ presence and early disruption of Bryant’s attempt to catch the pass as the ball arrived, Shields was a nonfactor in the application of the rule. Yes, Shields made contact with Bryant as he was going to the ground, thus he was “down” at the point Bryant’s body met the ground, but that is irrelevant to the controversy.
It is obvious to all that Bryant was falling as he collected the ball. That is key. It requires Bryant to demonstrate full control through the process of the catch as he and the ball met the ground.
Picking up where I left off in paragraph four above, Bryant hit the ground with the ball in his hand. The ball then contacted the ground while in his hand and popped up. The pass was incomplete at that point.
In truth, I saw the ball pop out at that point in real time. My surprise about this entire result was that the play was considered a catch at all. It was ruled a catch, initially. Watching it live, I was certain it was not a catch. I experienced some distress as I learned they ruled it a catch, but felt confident that it would be overturned on review.
Back to the catch process … once Bryant let the ball move off his hand upon contact with the ground, TV watchers’ views were cut off by the near-side TV angle, which was blocked by the body of the well-positioned side judge. The opposite side view revealed even more damning evidence for those that might still want to insist that Bryant made the catch.
Once the ball popped upon ground contact, Bryant rolled forward over his arms and the ball. The ball popped into the air during this continuing action. It was entirely aloft — clearly not in the control of Bryant or anyone.
Why it’s fair
The rule is clear and not hard to grasp (unlike that particular football). It is also not new.
The rule is also a good, fair way to apply the process of a catch. I fully allow that a phrase like, “the process of a catch” might make a fan’s skin crawl, but every catch is a process. To deny that is gross oversimplification.
But I dispute the prevailing assertion that this is a bad rule — the second part of today’s common belief. I ask you: How would you revise the rule to make it more fair and universally applicable to all situations? In other words, how could you legislate it any other way and not require even more subjective judgment on the part of the NFL officials?
I don’t have unlimited imagination, but I say this: You can’t. Maybe you think you have a solution, but I doubt it. The best minds in football have carefully constructed this rule — and communicated its application — for all to abide by. In other words, that’s the rule.
If you think that Bryant wasn’t falling but was “making a football move” you would have an argument that this particular play should have been a catch. However, it is obvious that he was going to the ground as part of his efforts to collect the ball. The call — and the rule — is fair. What happens when a receiver contacts the ground is paramount criteria if the player cannot avoid going to the ground.
Here’s the most compelling evidence that the rule is just: If you want to argue, “Well, it just looked like a catch to me,” you’ve made the case for the rule’s existence. You are basing your belief on subjective judgment. If that were the prevailing criteria, every catch in the NFL that includes a receiver going to the ground would be unevenly applied — multiple times per game.
You’re asking for chaos and controversy. The “Calvin Johnson rule” prevents this — in theory.
Just not today.
It may surprise some that the “Calvin Johnson rule,” such as it is, is actually less restrictive than prior years. Google “Brett Perriman catch” sometime for another catch kerfuffle that pre-dates the current iteration of what comprises a catch when a receiver goes to the ground. In short, it used to be that if the ball touched the ground at all — no catch. Didn’t matter if the ball was still firmly in control of the receiver’s hands. Of course, if the rule were still enforced that way, there would be nearly no crazy complaints about the legitimacy of the call reversal.
What am I talking about? Of course there would be. It’s the NFL.
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