Tim Benz: Sneak peak at NFL’s simplified catch rule seems better, not great

April 2, 2018

NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron announced pending changes to the NFL’s catch rule via Twitter. In the tweet, he admitted the now-infamous Jesse James “didn’t survive the ground catch” versus New England last December would now count as a touchdown moving forward.

Ole’ Al even @-mentioned James. That’s nice. James surely appreciated that wonderful gesture.

Yeah. That’ll make everything all better.

I bet much of “Steeler Nation” is happy change is being made in the name of James getting hosed by a bad rule. But it feels like way too little, three months too late.

Much like Riveron’s Twitter game.

Riveron’s social media outreach followed Tuesday’s news from the NFL competition committee that it would recommend changes of the catch rule to the owners during their meetings next week.

Now, here are the tough parts:

e_SBlt Writing the new rule intelligently

e_SBlt Applying it consistently

That’s difficult to do because those two points may be intellectually juxtaposed.

Here’s what I mean.

In another tweet, Riveron laid out a simplified, three-pronged argument to define a catch.

1. Control

2. Two feet down and another body part

3. A football move

Riveron went on to describe a football move as:

1. A third step

2. Reaching/Extending the line to gain

3. Or the ability to perform such an act

OK. Right away, drop the “ability to perform such an act” thing. Already you are making it too open-ended and nebulous. You either actually perform “the act” or you don’t.

Secondly, “third step?” Does that assume you mean the first two feet touching the ground count as “steps”? Is that just a “you know what I mean” way of writing around the biological impossibility of getting a “third foot” down?

Before you get on me for giving Riveron too hard of a time or accuse me of parsing the NFL’s language here, I know I am. That’s the point. That’s what Team Riveron is going to have to do every time a play is reviewed. That’s why it’s important to do it now.

Which is why I hope they don’t write too much more than this. I don’t want too much more of a definition as to what “a football move” is. I don’t want much more of an attempt to define “control.”

I want — and I can’t believe I’m about to type this — the on-field officials and the replay judges to independently use their brains more often.

I don’t want them being slaves to cumbersome and, at times, contradictory language within the rules.

That’s what cost James and Dez Bryant in 2014, and almost cost Corey Clement in the Super Bowl.

I’m glad the league didn’t wed itself to specificity of the language applied to James and Bryant when it reviewed Clement’s touchdown catch for the Eagles.

That ball was controlled enough to deserve a reception. This week, NFL operations chief Troy Vincent even cited that play as an example of receptions that should continue to be upheld under the tweaked rule.

This is what I mean about the inherent rub between writing the rule intelligently and applying it consistently.

Believe it or not, writing less on paper may make the rule more intelligent.

The league should leave each ruling of “football move” or “control” to the eye of the beholders (the officials) from game to game.

Strangely, a lack of consistency within the definitions may accomplish the end goal of consistency: Making the catch rule a written version of “We’ll know it when we see it.”

There’s one other element the NFL must address. It must clarify that a score takes place once a receiver crosses the goal line with control.

James, Calvin Johnson in 2010, Odell Beckham vs. New England in 2015, and many other catch/non-catch controversies over the years have involved a receiver crossing the goal line and/or how the end zone should have theoretically ended the play once possession has been established.

You know, the old “why are the rules different for a running back leaping over the pile as opposed to a receiver catching the ball” debate.

It’s a good question. The answer should be: “There isn’t a difference.” That needs to be stated in this new rule, too.

So good luck drafting the language, Mr. Riveron! Make sure you tweet out the new rules. Maybe Jesse and Dez will give you a thumbs-up emoji if you do it right.

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.