Oh, So Now NFL Decides Dez and Calvin Caught It, After Years of Bad Rule Changes to Justify Those Calls?

By Jason Lisk

The Calvin Johnson touchdown catch that was not a touchdown happened seven and a half years ago. So you can understand that it might take a while to form a strong opinion on that play. Dez Bryant? That was three years ago. If you look at it from the context of the entirety of human history, time has barely passed since those events.

Yesterday, John Mara told ESPN that the NFL Competition Committee is unanimous that both of those plays should have been catches.

"“I think where we are unanimous,” Mara told ESPN on Tuesday, “[are] plays like the Dez Bryant play in Green Bay, going to the ground, [and] the Calvin Johnson play from a couple of years ago. I think all of us agree that those should be completions. So let’s write the language to make them completions.” *** Mara said the committee is not in complete agreement on the [Jesse] James play and acknowledged that past efforts to tweak the rule have failed. *** He added: “It’s easy to say the rule has got to be changed, but coming up with the right language is a challenge.”"

Fair as to that last point. But I’m not going to sit here and get all excited about the NFL actually doing something because they have stubbornly failed to change things for going on eight years. During the 2010 season, Rich McKay (then-head of the Competition Committee) said “the going-to-the-ground rule will definitely be discussed.” They have re-written the rules, and they did so in such a way that actually tried to justify some prior decisions, rather than making catches be interpreted as such.

Remember back to the aftermath of the 2015 rule changes. The “going to the ground” rule, prior to that, included a reference to making an act common to the game. Well, Bryant appeared to stretch for the end zone, and that’s when he lost the ball after his elbow hit down (after already touching down with three feet and the other hand as he extended).

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.” Upright long enough? Clearly a runner? Those are things that added more layers to restricting plays like Bryant becoming a catch.

Back in 2000, the league moved swiftly to clarify the Bert Emanuel play in the NFC Championship. If you don’t recall, that was a real “going to the ground” play where Emanuel slid to make a catch, and had control. The ball also touched the ground even though Emanuel never lost control. It was ruled incomplete. It took one offseason to alter it so it stayed a catch if a player maintained control, even if the ball touched the ground.

My rule change to clarify what is and is not a catch and try to get in line with what I think is the general perception of these plays is to simply say that a third point of contact with a foot down, after control and the necessary contact of foot, hand, or other body part, eliminates the “going to the ground” issue forever on that play. Going to the ground plays should apply to diving or sliding attempts. They should not apply to plays where a player makes a catch and gets two feet down, a defender falls into them forcing them down, and they take another step or two before falling to the ground.

Let’s review how just that clarification changes many of the controversial calls over the years.

Calvin Johnson (2010): Johnson leapt, caught the ball, got two feet down, a defender fell into him in the end zone, he then took another step on the hop after contact, put his hand down, hit his butt down, and then rolled over and put the ball on the ground and lost it as he pushed to get up and celebrate. Verdict: Catch. Clearly. 

Dez Bryant (2015): Bryant leapt to catch it with a defender falling into him, came down with two feet, took a third step as he stumbled, moved the ball to his left arm, touched his right hand down, and tried to reach for end zone. Verdict: Catch. Clearly.

Jesse James (2017): James caught the ball short of the end zone and hit his knee down, the back foot also hit as he then turned simultaneously and tried to reach for end zone. The ball came loose when his elbow hit on that extension. Verdict: Not a Catch. Bet you didn’t see that one coming, but he was going to the ground to make this catch since he was already diving to a knee before the ball arrived. (I’ll discuss more below).

Zach Miller (2017): Miller broke his leg on this play (I’m not going to re-insert video here) and to add insult to injury it was reversed from a touchdown. Miller caught the ball over the defender, touched one foot down, broke his leg when his 2nd foot hit down and slipped, then landed the initial foot again, then lost the ball as he crumpled to the ground when his elbow hit. Verdict: Catch. If he had lost it before that third foot hit down it’s incomplete, but his third foot hitting down established the catch in the end zone.

Rod Streater (2013): You probably don’t remember this one, but check it out.

Verdict: Absolutely a catch. I mean, I would have said it should have been under the old rules but the officials want to make everything going to the ground. He caught the ball while turning backwards, got like 4 feet down before being shoved down into the end zone. My rule would have made it clear-cut for the officials.

Richard Marshall (2011): This interception is trickier but a good illustration of where the line might be. Marshall tips the ball, then dives to catch it as he goes to the ground. He then rolls, puts his back leg down to push up, and loses the ball as he starts to try to run.

Verdict: Interception. Had Marshall lost it while diving and hitting the ground, it would have been incomplete. Had he lost it while rolling in one simultaneous motion, incomplete. Once he had control as he put that foot down to get up, though, the rule no longer applies in my change.

So let’s go back to the Jesse James play. What I don’t want is for the Competition Committee to disagree about that play, and as a result do nothing to address the major issues with the rule where things like Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson and the Zach Miller are called incomplete.

I think it’s fine to think that Jesse James should have been a TD also, but you do have to recognize it is a closer case and one that has potential ramifications if you rule the other way. (Also, by the way, the Zach Ertz TD in the Super Bowl would have been a TD under my rule because Ertz took four steps and dove).

Here are some plays more similar to Jesse James, involving another with Calvin Johnson and Victor Cruz. Johnson was ruled as incomplete, Cruz actually stood as a catch.

If you want to make those plays a catch, then the language, in addition to my “third foot negates going to the ground” rule, needs to go back to the standard where a clear football move–in this case diving or reaching for the end zone– after establishing control and two feet (or hand and foot, or other body part) establishes the catch.

The Pandora’s Box with those plays is this: what if Jesse James is extending for a first down on that play instead of the end zone? And then he loses it by extending? It would be a fumble (unless he was touched down by contact prior), subject to recovery by the defense. You will have plays like that resulting in fumbles if not down by contact, and you have to be good with that if the James play is a catch.

I’m fine with that, but you have to be aware. But regardless, the Competition Committee needs to make the changes, and they get no kudos for finally acknowledging what everyone has known for a long time.