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Catch rule apparently gets misapplied, and maybe that’s good news

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In recent years, the NFL has been adamant about the rule regarding the process of making a catch when the receiver is going to the ground. The receiver must maintain possession through the act of going to the ground.

Late in the third quarter of Saturday night’s divisional playoff game between the Packers and Cardinals, Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald caught a pass and stumbled to the ground, taking several steps. When he landed, Fitzgerald lost possession.

Ruled a catch on the field, Green Bay challenged. Based on the manner in which the NFL stubbornly has applied the rule as written in recent years, it shouldn’t have been a catch. After further review, however, the ruling on the field was upheld.

Said NFL V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino on Twitter after the decision: “On Fitzgerald play ruling on field was that he was a runner before ball hit the ground. Not enough to change.”

The ultimate logic is consistent with Blandino’s recent explanation of the touchdown catch by Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant against the Bengals a week ago. Blandino believed it wasn’t a catch, but under the standard applicable to replay, there wasn’t sufficient visual evidence to overturn the ruling on the field.

In other words, if the ruling on the field had been that the pass was incomplete, the evidence would have been insufficient to overturn that, too.

That’s a reasonable explanation in isolation, but it overlooks one key historical fact. A year ago, in a divisional game involving the Cowboys and Packers, Dallas receiver Dez Bryant executed a similar maneuver, catching the ball, taking multiple steps while going to the ground, and actually lunging forward toward the goal line before landing and losing possession. In that case, the ruling on the field -- by the official standing right there watching it happen -- was that Dez caught it.

The same deference to the ruling on the field that applied to the Fitzgerald becoming a runner before the ball hit the ground should have applied to the Dez Bryant non-catch a year ago. If there wasn’t indisputable visual evidence to overturn the most recent one, there shouldn’t have been indisputable visual evidence to overturn the one from a year ago.

The only good news is that perhaps the NFL will interpret the rule differently moving forward, applying the very high 100-drunks-in-a-bar replay standard to the inherent judgment call of whether a player possessed the ball long enough to become a runner. This allows officials to apply a know-it-when-you-see-it-style standard to the question of whether the receiver had the ball long enough, making it as a practical matter impossible to overturn the ruling on the field.