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Catch rule may have indeed changed without changing

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The NFL isn't changing the wording of the catch rule, but they can still make it better by trusting the referees' judgments.

It’s become fashionable to trash the catch rule, and for good reason. For years, the application of the rule has not meshed with the gut-level reaction from fans regarding what is and isn’t a catch.

Now that the NFL has once again decided not to change it, folks continue to hammer away at the intransigence, failing to recognize the very real possibility that the rule has changed without actually changing.

The first real proof of it came in January, during the epic divisional round playoff game between the Packers and Cardinals. Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald caught a pass while going to the ground, he lost possession when he hit the ground, and the official on the field determined that Fitzgerald had caught the ball.

The possible change in the technically-not-changing rule was revealed during the replay process. Applying the “indisputable visual evidence” standard, it was determined that insufficient proof existed to overturn the ruling on the field that Fitzgerald had the ball long enough to become a runner.

The NFL may not explain it that way, because to do so could be to admit that Dez Bryant’s non-catch from January 2015 was actually a catch. Indeed, the official looking right at Bryant as he caught the ball in the air, took multiple steps while tumbling to the ground, and reached out with the ball toward the goal line decided that he had the ball long enough to become a runner. Under the standard that didn’t overturn the Fitzgerald catch a year later, the Bryant catch also shouldn’t have been overturned.

Regardless of whether the NFL explains it this way or couches it in concerns for player safety or other words aimed at securing the patience of all who are paying attention, the proof will be in the 2016 pudding, and the league will likely do a much better job of ensuring that, when it comes to catches, what we see is what we get.