Calvin Johnson and the Going-to-the Ground Rule


[Note: the NFL rulebook has changed since this post, but we are still debating the “going to the ground” rule and what is a catch. Here are my thoughts on the current rules applied to Bryant, and why I think the NFL’s rules are still ambiguous]

Calvin Johnson of the Lions caught what he thought was a game-winning touchdown with less than a minute left Sunday against the Bears. It was an incredible catch, and Johnson came to the ground with the ball in his possession. Officials, to the consternation of football fans everywhere outside of Chicago, ruled the catch incomplete.

The issue in this case is related to the NFL’s interpretation of its going-to-the-ground rule.  Before we get to the legalese and “statutory” interpretation of the NFL rulebook, though, I want to ask – after viewing that play, does it look like the type of play that we want to call a catch? We are going to get to the rules in a second, but I happen to think that if a player makes a play like that, it should be a catch.  If the rules are either ambiguous to the point that the officials cannot make a proper determination, or do not allow for such a play, then the rules need to be altered to meet common sense.

Now to the rules and what they say, because on something like this, you shouldn’t rely on what experts tell you second hand.  You should look to the actual rules.  After reading them, I happen to believe the rules on a reception as applied to the Calvin Johnson play are at best ambiguous, and at worst were misapplied as it relates to that play. Here is the rule from the Official 2010 NFL Rulebook as it relates to a catch:

"Article 3. Completed or Intercepted Pass. 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: (a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and (b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands. . . . If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body other than his hands to the ground, or if there is any doubt that the acts were simultaneous, it is not a catch."

That is followed by Item 1:

Item 1: Player Going to the Ground. 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 after he touches 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.

And compare that to Item 3, which appears in the same section:

"Item 3: End Zone Catches. If a player catches the ball while in the end zone, both feet must be completely on the ground before losing possession, or the pass is incomplete."

I have several criticisms of this.  The NFL makes lots of money, and can afford some good attorneys with legislative drafting experience. Several of these clauses appear to conflict, and several key terms are undefined or are ambiguous.  If they are undefined, I think we have to apply as much of a common sense and common usage interpretation as possible.  In the Calvin Johnson play, he secured the catch, came down with both feet in the end zone, then was hit by the defender, which caused him to go to the ground, then hit the ground with his back hand (while holding the ball cleanly in the other), then hit the ground with his legs and hip/butt, then swung around with his arm holding the ball, and it was at this point (when he set the ball down with his free hand) that the ball finally came loose.

On the broadcast, Mike Pereira said that the player had to maintain control through the entire act of making the catch. That, though, is not actually what the rule book says. The rule says that the player must maintain control after he touches the ground (it does not say for how long after, which is where reasonable people can differ on this interpretation). Calvin Johnson maintained control after he touched the ground, if you consider touching the ground his other hand and hip/butt making contact.  His first contact (well, first non-foot contact) with the ground was simultaneously, his other hand and the side of his hip and butt.  At that point, he still had clear control of the football.   If you interpret the rule in such a manor, once he made contact on the ground with his hip and did not lose possession as a result of the first hit with the ground, it was a catch.

Alternatively, even if you do not buy my interpretation of “after he touches the ground”, Item 1 and Item 3 are clearly conflicting as specifically applied to this play.  If you apply Item 3, it is clearly a touchdown–he had both feet completely down, before losing possession.  If you apply Item 1, it is arguably a touchdown, arguably not.  But the rules do not say what clause controls in the case of a conflict.  Item 3 has to be there for a reason, otherwise it is superfluous and unnecessary to Item 1, which already discusses catches in the end zone.

It’s a shame that the play that the Lions made at the end of that game did not result in a touchdown, because morally, it was a catch.  By the rules, I think it should have been too.  If the NFL disagrees, they need to more clearly and concisely write the rules.