This weekend, we’ll undoubtedly see countless replays as officials, announcers, and the Mikes – Pereira and Carey – try to determine what constitutes a catch in professional football. It’s all ridiculous, and lamenting the process is best left to Al Michaels and Jim Nantz. But few have offered reasonable solutions other than adding to or tweaking the current rules, a catch-all framework that too often doesn’t jive with the eye test.
My solution: Subjective judgment call by the official, with one litmus test: Did the receiver possess the ball before it hit the ground? [It can still touch the ground so long as receiver is firmly in possession.]
No need to put both feet, or a knee, hand or elbow down (other than on boundary plays– sideline, back of end zone), because, in theory, a receiver can make a great leaping catch, fully possess the ball, get helicopter-ed in the air, and lose it before he hits the ground. It would be up to the official to determine if he had firm possession before dropping it. This would be a rare case, and head-hunting could be an issue. But, yes, in theory, you can catch and possess a football before you touch the ground.
Wait, what? Surely I’m kidding, right? I’m not, and don’t call me Shirley. The current framework – especially the “until he has clearly become a runner” part – is up for interpretation anyway, and it often negates diving catches and potential fumbles. Most of the rules in football, or any sport, are incredibly specific and prescient. There’s almost a rule for every scenario because, taken to the extreme, one could circumvent a seemingly simple rule. Take, for example, a receiver not being allowed to be the first person to touch the ball after stepping out of bounds. In practice, it’s stupid– his foot hits the white line and all of a sudden he’s out of play until he can take three full steps inbounds. But, in theory, receivers could play hide and seek on the bench area and pop back in for a quick catch without it.
Catches are different. There’s no specific boundary, line, or time element that allows you to make a black and white call. Ultimately, it’s subjective… but subjective within the confines of a framework. If officials were freed to watch replays on questionable calls – yes, there’d still be replays, because anyone who argues that the league would want to shorten games and strip out the genuine drama of replays is kidding themselves– football is a soap opera in part because of replays, and unlike baseball, there’s not a great need to shorten a truly compelling product – it would prevent us from hearing “it looks like a catch, Joe, but that’s actually the right call according to the rules.” IF IT LOOKS LIKE A CATCH, IN SLOW MOTION, TO HIGHLY TRAINED EYES, IT’S A CATCH! Anyone who’s ever played beach football knows a catch when they see one. There are no hard and fast rules. Either you caught the ball or you didn’t. Jump up, grab the ball, tuck it ‘neath your arm and then drop it while you stumble to the ground… well, that’s a fumble. Catch a ball on the run, take three steps while the ball is squirting out from under your arm… well, that’s incomplete. Palm the ball like goddamn Odell Beckham, tap one toe to the ground and get popped… well, that’s up to the official.
This is no different than balls and strikes and baseball. Sure, there’s a loose guideline – shoulders and knees – but you tell me how many umpires follow it? And those calls are made, in real-time, on the fly, and are unchallengeable. NFL officials would have the benefit of HD, super slow motion closeups to inform their decision. It seems that the most egregious so-called mistakes on catch calls are the ones where the rules bastardize the eye. We blame the officials, but often they’re the scapegoat for calling it by the books. If they league just gave officials the freedom to use their judgment – and use it with the benefit of replay – we’d be better off. It’s not like they don’t make subjective calls already – pass interference, some penalties – and those happen at full speed. This would keep the drama of the catch replays, result in less head-scratching because officials are using a framework none of us understand, and, bonus, when they do screw up, we can have a true scapegoat.