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NFL Hocus Pocus

Dez Bryant

So the NFL wasted little time in adjusting the language of the unfortunate rules governing what constitutes a catch and what does not. This, of course, became a media focus when Dez Bryant’s leaping grab against the Packers in the playoffs was overturned by a replay challenge.

The NFL had already tempered expectations by announcing that the rule itself would not be changed, only the language altered. This had to be a cold dose of reality to fans and the members of the media who had demanded the NFL “fix it” as if the NFL could wave a magic wand and make a necessarily complicated rule go away.

What the NFL did do on Monday was change the verbiage of the rule by changing the need for a “football move” to equal possession to the receiver “clearly establishing himself as a runner.” This announcement and the explanation there of resulted in one of the more unintentionally hilarious NFL stories I have read in a quite some time.

In explaining the change, Jeff Fischer and other NFL committee members lauded the change as a vast improvement in clarification of the process, saying that the idea of a football move allowed too much of a grey area to enter the debate and that this change made things “pretty clear.”

What I find hilarious about this is that the phrase “clearly establish himself as a runner” in no way, shape or form appears to be more clear and concise than making a “football move.” In fact, one would assume that making a football move would be the primary way for someone to establish himself as a runner. I also would argue that anytime you use the word “clearly” you are automatically leaving a lot of room for interpretation.

Since making a football move is one way to establish yourself as a runner, in that sense, this change actually broadens the debate as to what constitutes a catch rather than narrowing it, which would have been the logical change to the language. It almost seems like this change was a response not to the problems with the current rule as a whole, but specifically to the debate surrounding Bryant’s catch, since one would have a harder time arguing Bryant didn’t make a football move than they would saying he never established himself as a runner.

The fact of the matter that is totally lost in this debate is that the NFL has actually been pretty consistent with this call ever since Calvin Johnson was ripped of a game winning touchdown in Week 1 of 2010. As complicated as the rule might seem, and contrary to established common sense at times, it really isn’t that hard to call. If the NFL was going to get this right and specifically explain how they have been calling this it would involve two parts.

The first is the definition of completing the process of the catch. A catch is deemed to be complete after a receiver has full control of the ball with two feet or the equivalent down and has made a football move.

The second part would deal with the situation of the receiver going to the ground. If a receiver begins the process of going to the ground before having completed the above defined process of completing the catch, then they must maintain full control of the ball throughout the entire process, including hitting the ground and coming to rest on the ground. 

Like it or not, that is how the NFL has been calling it since 2010. Upon rare occasion, this rule does take away what otherwise and in past years would appear to be obvious catches. However, by this same consistent enforcement of the rule, it is clear that Dez Bryant did not make a catch since he was clearly going to the ground before completing the process of the catch. It was completely irrelevant how many steps he took or whether he made a football move since he was already going to the ground at that point, which meant he had to maintain control throughout the entire process of hitting the ground and coming to rest.

Unlike most the bandwagon critics that have jumped aboard after Bryant’s non-catch, I have complained about this particular rule since 2010. The inherent problem is that the rule itself is meant for instances where the player leaves his feet, ie. dives for the football, which has always been among the most difficult plays for the referees to call. This rule arose specifically to make it an easier call for the refs. Now, if the receiver loses the ball at any point when going to the ground, the ref knows that it is incomplete. However, the problem comes in when a player isn’t diving for the ball but falls to the ground or is tackled to the ground after making the catch, which happens quite a bit. Does the same rule apply? If not, then where is the cutoff? At what point has the receiver established possession and can therefore go to the ground without this rule applying?

Again, the answer is in the rule. The NFL decided that if the receiver had not completed the process yet, then going to the ground at that point would be the same as the receiver diving for the football. In both cases, the receiver would have to maintain control throughout. As we have seen, the inevitable result of this elongation of the catching process is that catches that have always been considered completed are no longer completed until the receiver is at rest on the ground.

I have always railed against this interpretation, which equates a player being tackled to the ground with a player who dives for a catch. However, despite fan and media suggestions otherwise, the fact is that you have to have a clear cutoff point somewhere, and changing this rule so that there is cutoff point somewhere between the catch and the player going to the ground is NOT an easy fix.

Fans and media members who should know better have suggested that it is a catch if it looks like a catch. Of course, that is completely asinine. The NFL can hardly define a word by saying it looks like itself. That is like my son asking me what an airplane is and me saying- something that looks like an airplane. Gee, thanks, Dad.

Ironically, what those who repeat that refrain are actually calling for is something that I very much favor but they likely do not, and that is the elimination of replay. Thirty years ago when a diving catch was made, the nearest referee basically decided if it looked like a catch to them, and if it did, then it was. Period. It was the use of instant replay and the HD look in slow motion that changed all that.

Because of instant replay, the NFL has to set hard and fast rules about every act in the game that seemed easy to define in the 70 years prior to replay. If you want to truly go back to the days of a catch being a catch if it looked like a catch, then get rid of instant replay and you’ll have them. Of course, as soon as the ref decides that something didn’t look like a catch that did look like a catch to you, you’ll be wishing you had your instant replay back.

Probably the only way to really set a hard cutoff point is to get MORE specific with the rule. If the NFL defined what a “dive” is, then they could differentiate between a dive for a football and a player being tackled after a catch or simply leaping up to highpoint a ball. If you did that, then you could separate out the latter two scenarios and say those catches are complete once two feet or the equivalent hit the ground, which would award Bryant a catch in that case. However, defining a “dive” is probably going to result in such minutiae that it will require some judgement by the referee, and it is exactly that judgement that the NFL is trying to eliminate.

As a last option, the NFL could just go with hard cold truth and end all debate on the matter. The you-cant-handle-the-truth rule would likely read as follows:

When a player goes to the ground in the process of a catch, it will be deemed a catch when the referee and the NFL decides it is in their best interest to say so. If you don’t like that, you can go cry to the Ferguson police about how life isn’t fair. Is it fair that you work 9-5 to live paycheck to paycheck while jackwagons like Greg Hardy make millions and retire at the age of 35? Is it fair that billionaire NFL owners have you taxed when buying Skittles at the 7-11 in order to pay for the stadium that will make them more billions? Is it fair that no one gives a shit about your origami talent while some midget who can throw a pigskin dates models and lives the good life without even being a decent NFL player? The point is the NFL is the epitome of the fact that life isn’t fair. Get over it. Start snoring through soccer games while we fill your seat with some other sucker. Peace. Out. 


Shawn Neuser attended UWGB and lives and works in Green Bay. He enjoys long walks on the beach and being intimate with game film.



  1. Savage57 March 25, 2015

    The only issue that I have with the rule is the inconsistency with the generally accepted idea in the NFL that the ground can’t cause a fumble.

    In this rule, and this rule alone, it’s the only situation where without regard to contact, a player is required to maintain control against another obstacle (the ground) besides a player.

    Is it tough to judge? Yup, just like determining if a receiver has control of the ball when he toe taps just before going out of bounds. In basketball you have about 5 -10 ‘bang bang’ calls, in baseball you have a game full of calls framed in fractions of inches and seconds. But football is so overwhelmingly complex and different that asking the referees to actually determine the base act, and not dependent upon something that happens subsequent to it, that rather than deal with it, you make it so fucking arcane and subjective that nobody will ever really be able to answer the question – was that a catch?

    It’s a stupid rule.

  2. Kozak March 25, 2015

    And guess what Dez, STILL not a catch.

  3. the real russ letlow March 25, 2015

    screw the verbiage of the rule. just catch the damn ball.

  4. Makayla March 25, 2015

    Poor Cowgirls…Poor Dez

  5. Cheese March 25, 2015

    Fuck Dez Bryant, the cowboys, and the whiners of the rule. Know the rules, and hang onto the fuckin ball. Problem solved.

    1. Fritz March 26, 2015

      they could have at least simplified the rule by going back to the original, historical definition of a catch, which was: if the ball touches the ground, FOR ANY REASON, while in the process of completing a pass reception. it is incomplete, PERIOD.