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Competition Committee focuses on catch rule, again

Because catch calls are too subjective, the NFL's new catch rule shouldn't be replay reviewable.

With the annual league meetings starting next week in Orlando, the Competition Committee has commenced the process of finalizing possible changes to the catch rule.

In the wake of preliminary Competition Committee meetings occurring in Indianapolis during the week of the Scouting Combine, it became clear that the rule-making (more like rule-suggesting) body will be recommending that owners dump the requirement that players “survive the ground.”

That’s a great start, one that would potentially result in a small uptick in fumbles, but only if a player catches the ball, gets two feet down while stumbling to the ground, and loses the ball upon striking the turf -- if, that is, the player isn’t touched by an opponent on the way to the ground. (Or if he doesn’t break the plane of the goal line, thereby ending the play, before losing the ball.)

But a Monday tweet from NFL senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron highlights the challenge the Competition Committee, and in turn the owners, will face: How long will a player be required to keep possession of the ball before a catch becomes a catch?

“Over the past several days, the NFL Competition Committee has been reviewing the process of a catch,” Riveron said. “The first two elements are control and two feet down. Additional elements are also under consideration.”

Those “additional elements” are the most important. They represent the heart of the controversy that has plagued the rule in recent years. Previously couched in terms of the player having possession long enough to perform an act common to the game (the “football move” standard), the rule currently requires the player to have the ball long enough to clearly become a runner.

It’s ultimately a time element. How long must the player have the ball in his hands and two feet (or another body part) on the ground before the catch becomes a catch? If there’s no time element, it’s a simple proposition for officiating and, more importantly, for replay review: Ball in hands plus feet on ground equals catch, even if the defensive player instantly knocks the ball loose, making it a fumble.

The challenge of crafting the time element becomes the root of the problem for the league. One possibility would be to hinge the time element to the concept of whether the player is defenseless. If he’s still defenseless and he’s hit and the ball comes out, it’s not a catch. If he’s not defenseless and he’s hit and the ball comes out, it’s a fumble.

Regardless of the final language, it must be two things: (1) simple; and (2) not subject to replay review. The first two elements, which are objective and undeniable, can be confirmed or reversed via replay. The time element is necessarily subjective. A judgment call. The ruling on the field should be respected, in the same way that calls and non-calls of pass interference can’t be reconsidered via replay.