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  1. What is a "catch?"

    In light of the controversy swirling around the events in the NFL yesterday, I thought it might be helpful to try and bring a little clarity to the answer to the question on everyone’s mind: “Just what is a completed catch of a forward pass?” The inspiration for this post was the 14th time I heard on the sports talk shows this morning that there is an “inconsistency” in the rule book between a runner with the ball and a receiver catching a pass, when it comes to breaking the plane of the goal line. “If the runner is airborne with the ball, breaks the plane, and the ball comes out when he hits the ground, that’s not a fumble, it’s a touchdown. But if a receiver does the same thing in the course of making a catch, it’s an incompletion,” they shout indignantly. This misconception has, at its roots, ignorance of the definitions that underlie the rule. This ignorance results in unfortunate (and erroneous) comparisons like the above, as well as way too much misplaced righteous indignation. The first definition that’s important to understanding the error of the above statement is what constitutes a touchdown. A touchdown is possession of a live ball in the opponent’s end zone. Remember that word “possession,” it’s going to be important later. The rules of football as to what constitutes a “catch” are essentially the same at every level, the only significant difference being that in the NFL it’s not a catch unless the receiver lands with two feet inbounds, whereas in NCAA and NF it need be only one foot. Otherwise, it’s all the same. By rule, a catch is “the act of establishing possession of a live ball which is in flight, and first contacting the ground inbounds while maintaining possession of the ball or having the forward progress of the player in possession stopped while the opponent is carrying the player who is in possession and inbounds.” There are a couple of key concepts here which get overlooked when the talking heads make comparisons between a runner and a receiver catching the ball. First is the concept of “possession.” A player possesses the ball when he holds or controls it after he has caught it. Yes, this is an indication the rules weren’t drafted by lawyers. I know it’s a bit circular. You can’t have a catch without possessing the ball, but in order to possess the ball you have to catch it. Don’t get bogged down in the minutiae. The takeaway here is that a catch requires you to hold or control the ball while coming down inbounds. So, how do you establish that a player is actually holding or controlling the ball? That’s where you hear the term “football move” used, as in “he’s got to have the ball well enough to make a ‘football move’ with it before it’s a catch.” This is really just a shorthand way of saying that he’s got to control the ball, demonstrates that he’s actually got it, by doing something with it. If the player is going to the ground, the demonstration of control requires that he actually hold the ball throughout his contact with the ground, i.e., “secure the catch.” In the goal line situation, the analogy to a runner diving into the end zone is completely misplaced. As we can see from the definitions above, a runner isn’t “establishing possession.” He’s already got possession. And since the ball is in his possession, as soon as it breaks the plane of the goal line, the play is over, and it’s a TD. If the ball comes out afterward, it’s meaningless. Not so an airborne receiver who is in the process of making a catch near the goal line. If he secures the ball while airborne and, while secured, the ball breaks the plane of the goal line, it’s not a TD … yet. That’s because the ball is not actually in his possession until he completes the catch, by controlling the ball throughout his contact with the ground. If it comes out when he goes to the ground, he’s not completed the catch, which means he never possessed the ball. So it’s not only not a TD, it’s not a catch. It’s not really that difficult, once you know the definitions that underlie the rules. The judgment call as to whether a player actually controlled the ball sufficiently is just that: judgment. It will never be free from controversy. But a thorough understanding of the definitions involved is key to understanding the other elements of the issue.