NFL Catch Rules are Bad, and Don't Let Anyone Tell You Dez Bryant's Was Clearly Not a Catch


Badly written rules, laws, and regulations tend to come to light at the worst possible time. The NFL’s construction of what is and is not a catch, make no mistake, is a badly written rule. If you think that the Dez Bryant play was a catch, you aren’t necessarily wrong in thinking that.

Four years ago, in my first week working at this website for a NFL game (man, that seems like a long time ago), the Calvin Johnson play happened, and I wrote this, about how the rules on catches were ambiguous as applied to the Calvin Johnson play. They’ve since re-written the rule on catches slightly, but it hasn’t cleared it up much. In fact, as applied to the Bryant catch, it probably muddies the waters.

You may have even seen people (as have sent me messages) that sent a screen grab of Item 1 of Rule 8, Article 3 of the NFL Rulebook.

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 throughout the process of contacting 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.

That is not the entire rule, though. What does it mean to be “in the act of catching a pass,” as opposed to having caught a pass? That, as the title, intimates, is one item in a larger rule attempting to define that.

Before going on, let’s first go to Mike Pereira’s interpretation.

This is how Pereira describes his interpretation of the rule in the above video from the Fox post-game.

“If you are going to the ground, you have to prove that you have the ball long enough to perform an act, and do so, and part of that is stretching all the way out. To me, even though he moved the ball a little bit forward, they’re not going to consider that a football act. I think that’s the one thing they’ve been consistent on.” [emphasis mine]

According to Pereira, the distinction here is that Dez Bryant had to stretch out further (“all the way out”). Pereira says he had to do that to complete the catch before going to the ground.

What does the rule book say? Here’s the main part of Article 3 on what is a catch, and I’ve included Note 1 (which is different than Item 1), since it is relevant, and contradicts Pereira.

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; and 

(c) maintains control of the ball long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.). 

Note 1: It is not necessary that he commit such an act, provided that he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so. [emphasis ours]

Do you see the problem here, as applied to Dez Bryant? He secured control of the ball before two feet came to the ground, satisfying (a) then (b). Then we get to this question on (c). Did he maintain control long enough to commit an act “common to the game?”

If he did, then that Item 1 of which everyone has a screengrab doesn’t apply. Even though, as a practical matter, Dez Bryant went to the ground after the catch, there have been lots of cases where receivers have gone to the ground but been deemed to commit an act common to the game so that the “going to the ground” rule did not apply.

Trying to stretch out to get a touchdown or first down is considered an act common to the game, as part of that “etc.” in part (c), which I’ll get to in a minute. The gray area here–and why I say that it is a gray area despite those talking heads paid to talk about the rules saying it was clearly not a catch–is this note 1. I mean, Pereira directly misstates the actual rule. Dez Bryant didn’t have to actually stretch for the end zone, and we shouldn’t be debating whether he stretched enough on the actual play. He just had to be capable of it after control and two feet down in the field of play.

And that’s what’s so bizarre about this play, and the rules applied to it. Now, I personally think Bryant took three steps, switched the ball from both hands to the hand away from the defender after coming down with the ball (another move that could be considered common to the game), and was capable of extending toward the end zone. But, had Bryant simply dropped to the ground and cradled it into his belly, he likely keeps control. And if he kept the ball in both hands after touching both feet down, and stretched his arms away from his head and fallen on his face to the ground, and the ball bounced out, it would have definitely been ruled a catch, even though the ball would have come out.

Why do I say that?

Well, here’s Dean Blandino just last year explaining the difference between a reversal to a non-catch on a Calvin Johnson play in week 1, and a Julius Thomas touchdown in week 2.

I understand why the second Calvin Johnson play was not a touchdown. Even though he stretched out, his 2nd foot hadn’t come down yet, and so his contact with the ground was part of establishing himself in the field of play.

The Julius Thomas play, on the other hand, demonstrates that going to the ground doesn’t really mean going to the ground every time. The difference between Thomas and Bryant is one of degrees, much slighter. While Blandino says Thomas took several steps, he really only took two after gaining control (and it even appeared there was a slight movement of the ball before full control), then extending toward the goal line and losing the ball on contact with the ground.

Bryant took three steps, switched to one hand, put other hand down (so had four contacts after control) and reached toward goal line, but was not palming the ball fully extended with one hand. The irony here is that had he been less secure with the ball (just trying to reach out holding it with his fingers, rather than finger on point of ball, ball on forearm), it would have been a catch based on that Julius Thomas interpretation.

That Thomas play was never reviewed by the way. The replay official did not challenge it despite Tom Coughlin’s protests last year, and the explanation about the differences definitely leaves us in a gray area. Especially when, as written (and not as Pereira tells you), Bryant didn’t have to fully extend, only be capable of it, after that second foot hit down.

So how would I change the rule? I think most of the plays where it comes into effect are fine. Receiver sliding to the ground, receiver dragging toes along the sideline and falling out of bounds. But I think, morally, what Dez Bryant did should be a catch. And I will go to my grave thinking what Calvin Johnson did against the Bears in week 1should be a catch. And that the rules should be clear so that they are in the future.

Rather than this “acts common to the game”, didn’t have to actually do it, just be capable of it stuff, I would just expressly spell it out. If you have control and two steps to satisfy (a) and (b), a third step while still maintaining control constitutes completing the catch. Going to the ground after a third step in the field of play does not matter. Imagine a hypothetical where a player stumbles for several steps and takes like six steps, all while having the ball, then the ball comes out when he hits the ground. He never stretches, never tries to make a move, just falls forward stumbling for awhile. Under Pereira’s interpretation, it would not be a catch.

This would take that judgment out of it. What the hell does it mean to be capable of making an act common to the game, even if you didn’t do so? That’s a gray area and headache that is completely unnecessary, and ends up defying logic. I think Dez Bryant was capable of making a move common to the game after the second foot came down. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong, but it’s completely open to interpretation and not slammed shut by a clearly worded rule.

My rule, by the way, would make catch/fumble calls easier. In Pereira’s interpretation, a player that has full control and stumbles for six steps while going to ground, then loses it, is an incomplete pass. If a defender, on the other hand, hit him on step 5 before his knee went to ground, it would be ruled a fumble. You shouldn’t be able to have a fumble unless you have a catch that is irrevocable by later ground contact.

Under my proposed rule, getting a third foot down after control negates the going to the ground rule for ever and ever. And a hit as soon as the third foot comes down with control, any subsequent hit or loss of possession results in a fumble. Ask yourself this on the Dez Bryant play. If a safety is coming over the top and hits Bryant just as he puts his hand to the ground, after three feet hit the ground, and the ball came out for that reason, would it have been ruled a fumble or incomplete?

My “third foot in play means process of catch completed” is a clear standard that doesn’t ask an official to determine what an athletic freak of a player might be capable of doing, on a bang-bang play, but gives them a factual event to observe. I don’t blame the officials for reversing. I thought it was probable after seeing it. I do blame the rules for being poorly written, and still over four years later, ambiguous.

[images and videos by Michael Shamburger]