Commentary

But here's the catch ...

Originally Published: September 23, 2009
By David Fleming | Page 2

You know something is totally messed up in the NFL when Oakland Raiders fans start making sense.

Flem File

But since Week 1 of the season, when officials overturned what looked like a certain 19-yard touchdown catch by Raiders receiver Louis Murphy -- a four-point swing in a 24-20 loss to the underwhelming Chargers -- I've listened to all those howling, confused voices from the Black Hole, and I gotta say, for once, I agree.

In fact, I've just finished reviewing the following: Murphy's drop, Jacoby Jones' touchdown bomb in Houston's win over the Titans and Carolina wideout Dante Rosario's 11-yard TD catch against the Falcons. Honestly, I'm convinced the touchdowns were drops and the drop was a clear touchdown.

I'm not the only one who's confused. I conducted this forensic investigation during the Colts-Dolphins game Monday night when Jon Gruden, a man we can all agree is something of a football savant, shouted this line after an apparent interception during the second half: "That's a catch -- whoops -- no it isn't."

Actually, I think that may be the subheading of Article 3, "Completed or Intercepted Pass," on Page 50 of the NFL rulebook. That passage also includes the so-called explanation of the noncatch on Murphy's Call.

"A player is in possession when he is in firm grip and control of the ball inbounds. To gain possession of a loose ball that has been caught, intercepted or recovered, a player must have complete control of the ball and have both feet completely on the ground inbounds or any other part of his body, other than his hands, on the ground inbounds. If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any other part of his body to the ground or if there is any doubt that the acts were simultaneous, there is no possession. This rule applies to the field of play and in the end zone."

This Byzantine blather is proceeded by an even more confusing "Note 1," known as the "going-to-the-ground" clause. The G2G states, "A player who goes to the ground in the process of attempting to secure possession of a loose ball [with or without contact by a defender] must maintain control of the ball after he touches the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, there is no possession. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, it is a catch, interception or recovery."

Yes, according to this confusing, circular, contradictory 200-freakin' word explanation, I suppose you could argue that the officials made the correct call. It seems simple, at first. In the act of possessing a pass, if a player is going to the ground and the ball touches said turf, it may not move more than slightly -- or it's an incompletion. I get it. Not the actual rule, mind you, but the genius behind the NFL Rubric, I mean, rulebook. You see the NFL has created a set of rules so arcane and open to interpretation that, no matter what the officials call on Sunday, the following week the league office can prove they were 100 percent correct.

I don't expect the calls to be perfect. Human frailty is part of sports, a part most of us actually enjoy and appreciate. This is more about the growing confusion over the same kinds of plays constantly getting different calls because the rules are too weird to understand. For example: Did you know that the NFL actually sees a clear difference between the terms "simultaneous catch" and "joint catch"?

The NFL cannot continue to develop into a passing league when something as simple and basic as the definition of catching the football takes two full pages of text, three officials, hyper-slo-mo viewing, a panel of astrophysicists and a room full of lawyers and linguists.

In other words, you can't have a passing league in which the definition of a catch is more difficult to understand than Einstein's theory of relativity or, say, the appeal of the Kardashian sisters.

Everyone other than stat geeks, Dungeons & Dragons aficionados and conspiracy theorists was confused by Murphy's Call. He caught it. Placed his left foot on the turf. Check. Held the ball. Check. Then placed his right foot on the turf. Check. Held the ball some more. Check. Then landed on the ground while still in possession of the ball. Check.

Incomplete pass. What?

If the simplest definition tends to be the correct one, it sure looked, felt and seemed like a catch to me. Ditto to Murph. "That's like winning the lottery and them taking it back from you," he said after the game. "The ultimate high, then the ultimate low."

It was only after the play was allowed to be unwound by loopholes of logic and super hi-def slo-mo that the touchdown was reversed. And don't even get me started on slo-mo. First of all, the games aren't played in slow motion. The rules weren't written in slow motion. And yet this technology is allowed to splice every part of the game down to its molecular core -- frame by frame, pixel by pixel, atom by atom -- to the infinitesimal point where, shoot, I'm no longer 100 percent sure Murphy was even on the field that day.

If NFL Films videotapes a tree falling in the forest and then replays it in ultra-super-mega slo-mo, did it really fall down, or did it just lean, slightly, inevitably, into the Earth's rotation? Ya know, every time these rules and this technology are used to change a call that the human eye determined was a no-brainer, I wonder, how many of the 20 all-time greatest catches in NFL history would be overturned using the league's current system? Half? A third?

The biggest problem I have is that the rules contradict themselves. A player going to the ground needs to maintain possession of the ball. OK, but at the same time, the rules also suggest that once a player has controlled the ball with two feet in bounds, he has caught the ball, and therefore you could argue that it's already been declared a catch before he starts going to the ground. "When they overturned it, I started asking, 'What's the rule, what's the rule, what's the rule?'" Murph says. "Everybody told me two feet down and once you land it's OK, but then I found out in meetings today the rule is even if you fall with two feet down, you still have to control it, which I thought I did."

Again, the rules say if a player is going to the ground, he must maintain control of the ball. But they also say it's OK if the ball touches the ground as long as you don't lose control of it, and that "slight movement" of the ball is fine once the ball is caught. But what does slight mean? A twist? A full turn? A shift? A bobble? A shake? A gink? (I made that up, but still.) Riddle me this: If the ball's touching the ground during a catch does not constitute possession, you could argue, in theory, that every time someone is tackled and the ball touches the ground, the runner is not in "possession" of the ball and it's a fumble.

The result of all this technology, nomenclature and atom splitting is that although the officials in Oakland were able to determine the most infinitesimal movement of the ball as it contacted the ground, the guys in Tennessee didn't see anything wrong with the ball's leaving a large divot in the grass after Jones secured it with what looked like nothing more than his left butt cheek. On the other hand, Rosario's catch against the Falcons was allowed because the ref said the tight end, and I quote, "completed the catch, performed a second act, reaching for the goal line, penetrated the goal line, and the result of the play is a touchdown." That tells me the refs in Oakland and the league office do not consider planting both feet on the turf -- like, say, while throwing, running a route or kicking a field goal -- to be an actual football move.

Confused?

That's OK. You should be.

The problem is so are the refs, the players, the coaches and the league office.

That's why an obvious drop in Nashville is a game- (maybe, season-) changing touchdown, but what our eyes tells us is the clean catch in Oakland is little more than an incomplete pass.

Don't worry, though. I vow to clear up all this the next time the NFL's rules committee meets during the offseason at its usual unknown tropical island location.

One question: Anyone know how to open The Hatch?

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship." And his work will be featured in the 2009 Best American Sports Writing anthology. The Flem File appears every Wednesday during the NFL season with updates on Mondays and Fridays.