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Proposed catch rule uses objective and subjective language for critical element

The NFL Competition Committee's catch rule proposal takes steps in the right direction, but even with the changes, there may still be a problem of subjectivity.

For the critical third element of the revised catch rule, the NFL’s Competition Committee could have chosen an objective standard or a subjective standard. The Competition Committee has chosen both.

That’s the most important takeaway from the Wednesday tweet by NFL senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron, who unveiled a three-part standard for the third element of the catch rule, which generally requires the player, after possessing the ball and getting two feet (or a body part) on the ground to perform a “football move.”

The Competition Committee’s proposal defines “football move” in three ways: (1) taking a third step; (2) reaching or extending the ball for the line-to-gain; or (3) having the ability to do either.

The first option is clearly objective; the player either takes a third step after catching the ball or he doesn’t. The second option is primarily objective -- in most cases, it will be obvious when a player is reaching or extending the ball. The third option is inherently subjective, requiring officials to determine in real time whether the player could have taken a third step or reached/extended for the line-to-gain, if he’d wanted to.

That last component apparently was implemented to address situations where the player has no reason to take a third step or reach/extend the ball, such as when a catch happens in the end zone. Absent some sort of time element, a player who has the ball knocked out of his hands the instant he gets a second foot down in the end zone would be regarded as having caught the ball, even though most would viscerally react to that by saying, “No catch.” So the player who catches the ball in a situation where he doesn’t want or need to take a third step or reach/extend the ball needs to have the ball in his possession for some period of time before a catch becomes a catch.

The third option to the third element potentially complicates replay review, since Riveron in those cases won’t be simply looking at whether a third step was taken or the player reached/extended the ball but whether he could have done either. When replay reviews revolving application of the third option to the third element occur, it will be critical for Riveron to resist engaging in a frame-by-frame review of the play and to defer to the ruling made in real time that the player had the ability to take a third step or reach/extend.

This is, as a practical matter, the “know it when you see it” aspect of the rule, and the officials in real time are much better suited to know it when they see it than Riveron ever will be, especially if Riveron can’t overturn the ruling on the field absent indisputable visual evidence (or whatever the standard will be labeled) of an error.

Ultimately, the question of whether the NFL has fixed the catch rule depends on whether the replay standard is applied properly. If it is, then maybe the catch rule finally will have been fixed.

If, of course, at least 24 owners decide to adopt the Competition Committee’s proposal.