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NFL catch rule: No easy answer for angry Steelers fans or anyone else | Bob Brookover

Bob Brookover, COLUMNIST

Updated: Friday, December 22, 2017, 12:03 PM

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin (right) thinks the wording of the “catch rule” needs to be revisited. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Mike Tomlin was not the first head coach to think his team had just won a football game only to be told otherwise after a long replay delay. His Pittsburgh Steelers were just the latest team to fall victim to the convoluted catch rule. This offseason, we’ll see if Tomlin has the clout to do something about it.

Tomlin and a sellout crowd at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field celebrated Sunday evening when Ben Roethlisberger threw what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown to tight end Jesse James with 28 seconds remaining in a crucial game between the Steelers and New England Patriots. Home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs was on the line.

Nobody from New England argued the initial ruling of touchdown. It looked like a catch in real time, but all scoring plays and turnovers are reviewed. And when referee Tony Corrente watched the replay along with league officials in New York, it was determined it was an incomplete pass because the ball moved on the ground after James lunged forward into the end zone.

Steelers Jesse James looks for the call from the referee after what he thought was a touchdown against the Patriots late in the fourth quarter at Heinz Field Sunday, December 17, 2017 in Pittsburgh.

As much as Corrente is despised by football fans from both ends of the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, he was not the problem in this case. Corrente and the league went by the letter of the catch rule. Here’s what that rule — Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 — states:

“A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete.”

Under that language, the right call was made in the Steelers’ game. The question is whether the language needs to be changed. Tomlin, a member of the league’s six-man competition committee, believes it does — and he intends to address it during the offseason.

“I think that we all can acknowledge that all of this needs to be revisited,” Tomlin told reporters Tuesday. “Not just that play. We are having similar discussions week in and week out. As a member of the committee, I acknowledge that we’ve got our work cut out for us this offseason regarding a number of those things.”

There are some infamous instances of the “catch rule” rearing its ugly head. The two most notable are former Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson’s “end zone drop” to the turf in a 2010 opening-day game against Chicago and Dallas receiver Dez Bryant’s “drop” to the grass as he reached for the goal line in a controversial 2014 playoff game at Green Bay.

In both instances, the calls were correct based on how the rule is written. The most confusing aspect of the rule seems to be on plays around the goal line or in the end zone. It’s simple to figure out why.

Once a runner crosses the goal line on a running play, it is a touchdown, end of play, end of story. The ground cannot cause a fumble, and an act of God can’t change the ruling of touchdown. But it seems like a receiver has to pass the sobriety inspection that Steve Martin’s old character was subjected to in The Man with Two Brains, Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr.

New England coach Bill Belichick had some interesting insight into the matter.

“There (has) always been a (question) in the league … whether you want to have a catch and a fumble or an incomplete pass, and the philosophy has always been incomplete pass,” Belichick said. “Otherwise, you’d have a million catches and fumbles. I agree with that. The catch in the end zone is very clearly stated, so you’ve got to complete a catch. It’s pretty clear.”

It’s obviously not clear enough. But finding a better way to judge it is easier said than done.

“I think if you’ve got a better way to do it, suggest it and let somebody take a look at it and we’ll talk about it,” Belichick said.

Thumbs up

Three games are not enough to make a definitive statement, but it sure appears as if the San Francisco 49ers found their quarterback of the future in Jimmy Garoppolo. After a 1-10 start, the 49ers won their third straight game Sunday with Garoppolo as their starter by beating the Tennessee Titans on a field goal from Robbie Gould as time expired.

Garroppolo improved to 5-0 as a starting QB, including two games with the Patriots, and three of his five wins have been fourth-quarter comebacks. He will go against Jacksonville, the league’s No. 1 passing defense, on Sunday.

Thumbs down

Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio passive-aggressively whined for two days about the controversial fourth-down measurement that went against his team during Sunday night’s game against the Dallas Cowboys. If only he had done a better job of coaching his team in the season’s first 13 games, the Raiders’ playoff hopes might not have depended so much on one yank of the first-down chains and a folded sheet of paper.

This week’s matchups

Saturday night: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers (8:30 p.m., NBC10)

Atlanta’s win over Tampa Bay Monday night eliminated the Packers from playoff contention, and Green Bay wisely placed quarterback Aaron Rodgers on injured reserve. That should make winning easier for the Vikings, who need to win out and have the Eagles lose both of their remaining games to earn home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. The Vikings need a win and a Carolina loss or tie to clinch a first-round bye.

Sunday early afternoon: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints (1 p.m., Fox29)

The AFC South race has been the most entertaining in the NFL this season. The Falcons (9-5), Saints (10-4) and Panthers (10-4) are all still alive going into the season’s penultimate week. There should be some clarity after this game, because the winner controls its own destiny. If the Saints win, they’d earn the title with a Week 17 win at Tampa Bay. If the Falcons win, they’d earn the title with a Week 17 home win over Carolina.

Sunday late afternoon: Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys (4:25 p.m., Fox29)

The winner stays alive for the final wild-card spot in the NFC, and that would make for an interesting final game in Philadelphia for the Cowboys. Dallas could benefit from the Eagles resting players if they have already clinched home-field advantage in the NFC.

But the Cowboys need a lot of help to get there. It should be interesting to see how the Seahawks play after being pounded by the Rams. This game also marks the return of Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott from his six-game suspension.

Monday night: Oakland Raiders at Philadelphia Eagles (8:15 p.m., ESPN and 6ABC)

The 6-8 Raiders will be eliminated from playoff contention if San Diego (at the New York Jets), Buffalo (at New England) or Tennessee (home against the Los Angeles Rams) wins before kickoff on Christmas night at Lincoln Financial Field. In the four seasons when Eagles QB Nick Foles has played on teams with winning records, he is 16-4 as a starter with 47 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 101.5 passer rating.

Bob Brookover, COLUMNIST

Read full story: NFL catch rule: No easy answer for angry Steelers fans or anyone else | Bob Brookover

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