The blatant lack of consistency over officiating the act of catching a football continues to burden fans, players, and coaches.
Dubbed the biggest game of the season by many personalities across the country, the highly-touted matchup between the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and the contending Pittsburgh Steelers ended in controversy, as a touchdown catch by Jesse James with under a minute left in the game was overturned after official review. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception on a fake spike attempt two plays later and cemented the 27-24 win for the Patriots.
The call on James’ non-catch was heavily scrutinized and warranted this response by the NFL on Monday:
— NFL Football Operations (@NFLFootballOps) December 18, 2017
The question that haunts Pittsburgh fans and continues to be asked is simple: was this a catch? By the guidelines of the NFL, this is probably not a catch–but it should be. The NFL’s policy on catching a football continues to be hazy as plays that could set precedent for some types of controversial catches randomly waver from the rules. Over time, an effort to fix these inconsistencies has come in the form of adjustments to league policy, yet a blatant disregard for common sense and congruence of enforcement undercuts the attempts entirely.
One of the baseline plays for the modern NFL catch rules came in 2010 when former Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson appeared to catch a game-winning pass from quarterback Matt Stafford with under a minute left in the contest against the Chicago Bears.
Johnson falls to the ground while controlling the ball but then loses it after his body hits the turf and he rolls over. Officials on the field called it an incomplete pass and cited Johnson’s inability to complete the catch on the ground.
Fast-forward to 2014, and the infamous non-catch by Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Round goes under the microscope.
Bryant appears to catch the ball in the air, land on his feet, pivot to dive towards the end zone, and cross the plain. The officials deemed Bryant’s lack of control as he hit the ground evidence to overturn the catch and subsequently cost the Cowboys the victory.
The backlash was heavy after Bryant’s seemingly simple catch was ruled incomplete, and the NFL added some literature to the already-lengthy set of rules in order to quell confusion later on, yet the changes simply introduced even more questions.
The NFL policy on catches states that the player must, “(have) the ball long enough to clearly become a runner.” This change did away with the needing to make a “football move” in order to properly register a catch, the jurisdiction that the rule was previously under.
No change in language has helped NFL officials, however, as questionable rulings continued to plague games prior to the Steelers’ meeting with the Patriots.
In 2015, Lions wide receiver Golden Tate had a similar situation to James’ in Pittsburgh when Tate crossed the goal-line after securing a ball from Stafford.
Tate hauled in the pass but was stripped by a Bears defender after crossing into the end zone. The pass was ruled a touchdown and categorized as “different from the plays we’ve been talking about, the Dez Bryant play or the Calvin Johnson play” by then-NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino.
Blandino said, “This is not a receiver who is going to the ground. The issue here is ‘did he become a runner before the ball came loose?'”
Just a few weeks ago, New England ended up on the winning side of another controversial late TD grab by Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
Cooks was awarded the catch in the closing minute of the game. At first glance, this play seems as straightforward as possible: two feet down, ball secured, TD. However, the ball appears to hit the ground after Cooks jumps and lands on his chest.
The NFL Head of Officiating Al Riveron said, “He’s established possession. While he has possession, he has two feet down. The last part is, is he able to perform another common act? In this situation, he must complete that part of it or he’s still going to the ground.”
All of these plays point towards the call from Sunday evening involving the Steelers and Patriots. The ruling implies that James did not clearly become a runner, did not maintain control of the ball, and allowed the ball to hit the ground before completing the catch. Frankly, every single of these claims could be countered, but the problem is not that the call could be wrong, it’s that the call could be wrong.
The NFL’s weak wording continues to cause precedents to be broken and minds to be boggled.
The first finger to point is at the phrase “clearly become a runner.”
Admittedly, it does not appear that James establishes his footing to run with the football, but he clearly turns his body and lunges toward the goal line with the ball secure and body hitting the grass, implying the catch was complete. If James’ move to the end zone was not one that established him as a runner, how was Tate’s play from earlier deemed as such? Tate pinpoints the ball and loses control before he turns his body towards the end zone, but his catch stood as a touchdown. Even though James was going to the ground, would it matter had he already established himself as a runner?
Assuming James falls to the ground and does not “clearly become a runner,” did he actually fail to control the ball? The NFL policy states, “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.”
The ruling implies that James did not maintain control of the ball on the ground, which is debatable in its own right. However, compares James’ play to Cooks’ catch from earlier this season. Cooks allowed the ball to hit the ground and shift in his arms, yet the TD stood. Alternatively, Johnson’s non-grab against the Bears from 2010 had the same characteristics and much more runner establishment, yet remained an incomplete catch.
In the web of all of these inconsistencies, where does the Jesse James play fit? In the simple eye test, James clearly controlled the football in the air and crossed the goal line, leading to a TD. NFL officials see otherwise.
Fans will continuously disagree with referee rulings because of bias and ignorance, but the problem arises when the officials themselves cannot maintain uniformity. The case-by-case basis may be different, but the steps used to determine if a play qualifies as a catch are unambiguous, and the NFL continues to manipulate established policy at their own disclosure without any real backing.
The non-catch at the end of the Steelers-Patriots game was one of many dominoes in the line of NFL senselessness when it comes to officiating games. Creating landmark cases and rules and then ignoring both continues to be the way of the league, and until the wording is either better defined or simplified, the NFL will continue to “clearly become a runner” of broken administration.