Fennelly: NFL Fans, Time to Understand What’s a Catch and What’s Not

Everyone knows that contracts and labels are written by lawyers for lawyers in language designed to wriggle out out of any wrongdoing or Act of God. Time after time, corporations walk away unscathed because the consumer failed to either read the contact or label or perhaps did and just didn’t understand it. I mean, how many times do Americans have to be told to “read the fine print”?

The same goes for the rulebook of the NFL. Each spring, the NFL’s Competition Committee meets to vote on rule changes and each year, the majority of football fans decide to ignore reading how the changes may impact the game. Such is the case of the argument of what constitutes a good reception on the field of play and what is not.

Again this week we saw how little fans – and broadcasters – know about the rule which has been in effect for several years now. It all began back in 1999 when Tampa Bay WR Bert Emmanuel had a catch overturned in the NFC Championship Game and throughout recent history, officials have made dubious calls, including the 2010 play where Detroit’s Calvin Johnson had obviously scored a game-winning touchdown against the Bears only to be called back because he did not maintain full possession for the football all the way to the ground.

Since then, instant replay has simplified the process by slowing things down for the officials to determine if a player completes the catch “process”. But fans and even broadcasters and pundits still debate the issue. The rule is clear, and with replay so prevalent now, it’s almost indisputable these days if a player catches the football or not.

The latest instance of what fans believe is a misinterpretation or bastardization of the rule came last Sunday in Pittsburgh when Steelers TE Jesse James had the game-winning score negated by review, giving the hated New England Patriots the victory in a key battle for AFC supremacy.

Even broadcasters Jim Nantz and Tony Romo believed that is was a good catch. But they were wrong, too. James caught the ball inside the five yard-line. His knee hits at the one and as he lunges into the end zone, the ball comes loose as he makes contact with the ground just over the goal line. He did not maintain control “all the way to the ground.” The result was an incomplete pass and the Steelers would end up turning the ball over on an interception two plays later.


Since last season, every touchdown call gets reviewed regardless of where in the game it is scored, so a review on the play was imminent. The Patriots did not have to challenge. Knowing the rule, I had a feeling the officials were going to nullify the score, but knowing the inconsistencies of the past, it was hit or miss. But when I saw James lose partial control of the ball when he hit the ground, I knew the Steelers were in trouble. Jet fans only have to think back to their loss to New England this year when TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins had a TD called back on him to know how this was going to go.

Here is the rule, for any who want to take the time to read it. It is hardly cut and dry but they’ve been calling it to the letter of the rule.


A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:

  1. secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
  2. touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
  3. maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has the ball long enough to clearly become a runner. A player has the ball long enough to become a runner when, after his second foot is on the ground, he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up field, or taking additional steps (see 3-2-7-Item 2).

Note: If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered a loss of possession. He must lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession.

If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body to the ground, it is not a catch.

If the ball touches the ground after the player secures control of it, it is a catch, provided that the player continues to maintain control.

Now you can debate this until the cows come home if you want but the words “maintain control” and “all the way to the ground” are the ones the officials use to make the judgement. And, as you can see, the end zone rules are the same as the rules for the rest of the field.

I think where everyone becomes confused are understanding the different rules for a run play and a pass play. If a player runs the ball into the end zone, all they have to do is put the ball over the front plane of the end zone. On a pass play, they have to catch the football, make a football move and then maintain possession. If they catch the ball and run with it, the same rules as a run play apply. If they catch the ball near or in the end zone, they must maintain possession all the way to the ground to be credited with a touchdown.

Still confused? You’re not alone. Just keep one thing in mind: if you see that ball move, via a juggle or a bobble, get ready for the refs to call it incomplete.

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