Even NFL officials don't appear to know what a catch is

Referee Craig Wrolstad reviews a video replay on the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass.

What exactly counts as a catch in the NFL? No one seems to have a straight answer.

One of the ongoing storylines this NFL season has been how the league’s complicated rules governing receptions have impacted the outcome of games.

Several times this season, plays that were apparent catches to most viewers and announcers (and called that way on the field by officials) have ended up being overturned in replay. In Week 15, that cost the Steelers a victory against the Patriots (and potentially home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs) when Jesse James’ apparent game-winner was overturned by Al Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating.

The most recent example took place last week, when Riveron again ruled in favor of the Patriots, this time overturning an apparent touchdown catch at the end of the first half by Bills wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

“When Kelvin Benjamin gains control, his left foot is off the ground,” the NFL Football Operations department posted on Twitter after the play. “The receiver only has one foot down in bounds with control. Therefore, it is an incomplete pass.”

As part of a highlights package of Sunday’s Bills-Patriots game, Inside the NFL aired video of Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor and head coach Sean McDermott unsuccessfully trying to get an explanation from down judge Mark Hittner.

“How is that not a catch?” McCermott asks Hittner.

“I don’t know,” Hittner responds.


As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette pointed out earlier this month, Riveron’s rulings have tended to favor the Patriots. In addition to the rulings in the Bills’ and Steelers’ games, Riveron chose not to overturn a touchdown pass caught by Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks with 23 seconds left as the team beat the Texans, 36-33, on Sept. 24, despite Cook’s appearing to lose control of the ball as he hit the ground. Riveron also overruled a touchdown catch by Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins against the Patriots on Oct. 15.

Of course, no one is suggesting there is a conspiracy theory between the league and the Patriots to help New England win. But the catch controversies are the type of problems that can crop up when the NFL’s complicated rules end up impacting the outcome of games.

The problem with the rule is that it’s both long and complicated. As The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman pointed out in the offseason, the section in the league’s rule book that defines a catch has grown to be 649 words long, features three lettered subsections, six numbered items and two notes. Here’s the rule in its entirety:

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.

Item 1. Player Going to the Ground. 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. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.

Item 2. Sideline Catches. If a player goes to the ground out-of-bounds (with or without contact by an opponent) in the process of making a catch at the sideline, he must maintain complete and continuous control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, or the pass is incomplete.

Item 3. End Zone Catches. The requirements for a catch in the end zone are the same as the requirements for a catch in the field of play.

Note: In the field of play, if a catch of a forward pass has been completed, after which contact by a defender causes the ball to become loose before the runner is down by contact, it is a fumble, and the ball remains alive. In the end zone, the same action is a touchdown, since the receiver completed the catch beyond the goal line prior to the loss of possession, and the ball is dead when the catch is completed.

Item 4. Ball Touches Ground. 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.

Item 5. Simultaneous Catch. If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control. If the ball is muffed after simultaneous touching by two such players, all the players of the passing team become eligible to catch the loose ball.

Item 6. Carried Out of Bounds. If a player, who is in possession of the ball, is held up and carried out of bounds by an opponent before both feet or any part of his body other than his hands touches the ground inbounds, it is a completed or intercepted pass. It is not necessary for the player to maintain control of the ball when he lands out of bounds.

Calls for the NFL to address the problem have grown louder. One simple fix, suggested by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, would be to get rid of the surviving the ground rule and stop taking away obvious touchdowns because a football wobbles slightly when it’s watched on a loop in slow-motion replay.

“The control element keeps coming up time after time because when you go frame by frame, it’s going to look like it’s moving and it doesn’t mean you’ve lost control,” former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, now a CBS NFL analyst, said on The NFL Today.

Another idea comes from Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald‘s simple suggested rewrite of the rule book: “If a receiver catches the ball with two feet on the ground and turns to run with it, that should be a catch. If he gets the ball stripped, that should be a fumble.”

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, a member of the NFL’s competition committee, said the league’s catch rule must be revisited during the offseason.

“We’re having similar discussions week in and week out. So 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,” Tomlin told reporters,