What is a catch?

It seems like such a basic question. What could be more intuitive to the game of football than the concept of literal possession of the football?

And yet week in and week out, social media is flooded with the now ubiquitous hashtag #WhatIsACatch? (with myriad references to the point of reaching meme status to #DezCaughtIt, aka Dez Bryant’s “drop” in the 2014 NFL Playoffs against the Green Bay Packers – one Cowboys fan went so far as to make the declaration in his recent obituary).

Last night, during Super Bowl LII between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, the hashtag returned with a vengeance – not once, but twice – influencing two of the most crucial plays in the epic shootout that became an instant classic in the football world.

Unfortunately for Patriots fans, both plays were in fact ruled catches in favor of the Eagles. And both plays distinctly resembled previously overturned catches from earlier this year that went in the Patriots favor.

The first of these “catches” was made by Eagles running back Corey Clement on 3rd and 6 from the Patriots 22-yard line. Quarterback Nick Foles lofted a gorgeous ball to the back of the end zone where Clement made a phenomenal play on the ball for a key score to put the Eagles up 10. But upon replay, it seemed pretty evident that Clement briefly lost possession of the ball, and when he regained it, he no longer had two feet in bounds.

The play resembled a contreversial call from earlier in the season, when officials overturned a touchdown by New York Jets Tight End Austin Sefarian-Jenkins (also against the Patriots), saying that he briefly lost possession of the ball, and by the time he regained possession, he was out-of-bounds.

In that instance, it had been ruled that Sefarian-Jenkins actually fumbled the ball, resulting in a touchback and giving the Patriots the ball on the 20-yard line, but both that play and the Clement catch were essentially judgements of retaining possession and foot placement.

Chris Collinsworth, founder of Pro Football Focus, was announcing the game and voiced his opinion that the catch would be overturned. Former Head of Officiating for the NFL Dean Blandino took to Twitter in opposition of Collinsworth.

In the end, the officials went with the NFL’s built-in cop out (‘the play stands as called’) to keep the initial call of a catch in place. This is basically the NFL’s way of saying, “we don’t know how to accurately rule this play, so we might as well just go with whatever the referee said on the spot even though our slow motion replays yield a more clearly definitive view than the referee desperately trying to keep up with all-world athletes sprinting on the fly.”

The Eagles took a two-score lead, whereas if they play had been ruled incomplete, they would have been forced to attempt a field goal on the next play (and given the wacky special teams last night, WHO KNOWS what would have happened then?).

The second non-reversal of the game was what ended up being the Super Bowl-winning score by Eagles Tight End Zach Ertz with just over two minutes remaining. Ertz made the catch just a couple yards short of the end zone, and then twisted his body to hurdle over Patriots Safety Devin McCourty to take the ball into the end zone. When Ertz slammed to the ground, the ball popped loose from his grip.

The play nearly identically resembled a play from just weeks ago, when Pittsburgh Steelers Tight End Jesse James had a touchdown catch overturned (also against the Patriots) that likely would have been the game-winning score. James also caught the ball short of the end zone, dove for the touchdown, and had the ball pop out when he hit the ground. The officials ruled that he was still going to the ground in the process of securing possession, and thus did not complete the catch.

Where James was ruled to have not yet established possession, Ertz was ruled to have completed the catch and then made a separate move to go for the score, meaning that the second the ball broke the plane of the goal line, he had scored a touchdown, and the ball popping out of his hands was technically a dead ball. If the catch had been overturned, the Eagles again would have been forced to kick a field goal, which would have given them a slim two-point lead with two minutes remaining.

Few are complaining about the Ertz ruling, but it is clearly close enough to the James play to warrant some eyebrow raising. Alongside “What is a catch?” and “What constitutes possession” is “What is a football move?” Even if these two plays, as broken down by SB Nation, are different enough to yield a clear ruling going two ways, there is a gray area in there that would drive fans crazy.

What is a catch?

Roger Goodell says that he wants the barometer for what constitutes a catch to be something where if you polled a random bar during a football game, they would all inherently know the answer.

The problem with this assessment, of course, is that people (especially drunk fans watching a game at a bar) disagree about calls ALL THE TIME. Football is a highly ambiguous sport by its nature. Think about the act of spotting the ball: it seems like a crucial element to the game – gauging where the last play ended – and yet in practice, it is so flippant and subjective, with referees eyeballing the play on the fly and just rolling into the next play (save the rare replay challenge of a spot, which is almost never overturned).

Goodell has already announced that the rule will be “reviewed” in time for the 2018 season – whatever that means.

We all know what constitutes a catch most of the time, but boy-oh-boy does that gray area seem to poke its head out during the most inopportune moments, slapping the players, coaches, and fans alike across the face with a dose of gridiron reality: this game is imprecise.

They say you could call holding on any play. Same goes for pass interference. Offensive Tackles routinely line up too far off the line of scrimmage, trying to get a head start on the Defensive End coming around the corner to get to the Quarterback. But these are penalties, meant to be left to the discretion of the officials.

What is a catch? What is possession?

The dirty little secret about the #WhatIsACatch hashtag movement is that making the rule (and having it be applicable to all the random situations that consistently arise that have seemingly never previously been accounted for) is not easy. For being such a simple act (possession of the football) that is so integral to the premise of the sport of football, finding the proper arrangement of words that is applicable and obvious to all situations is tough work.

And that’s why we need your help!

In the FCFL, the FANS are tasked with every level of football operations. Sure, calling plays and voting on draft picks is great fun, but not every aspect of league management is meant to be so easy. Agreeing to a rulebook is tough work, but we think that you are up to the task.

In the coming months leading up to our first kickoff, FCFL Commissioner Ray Austin and Football Coach of the Fans Shawn Liotta will be speaking with dozens and hundreds of super fans who will help shape the rulebook. This will come in the form of AMAs and video broadcasts.

We are excited to bring you an entire league of fan-controlled football – but first, we need to set the rules.

So join us on Facebook, and Twitter, and let us know: what is a catch?

One reply on “#WhatIsACatch?”

Nice close-up on the third step in re Clement in SB52. It only takes two feet down in bounds in the NFL. You missed the first foot down in your clip.

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