The Blame Game: Who’s Responsible for the NFL’s Convoluted Catch Rules?

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Let’s face it: The NFL’s rules on what constitutes a legal catch are ruining football (along with the many different interpretations of those rules by the referees).

There was a time when amazing, acrobatic, physics-defying catches by super-talented wide receivers would be the most exciting part of watching a football game.

When a once-in-a-longtime play is unfolding in football, you don’t want to have to use your brain to be analyzing every little detail of the play and mentally matching those details up with the rulebook. You want it to be an emotional experience that makes you scream, jump out of your seat or throw whatever electronic device is closest to you (depending on which team you’re rooting for).

But now we have no choice but to be skeptical of a completed catch on these brilliant plays because the NFL hates us.

And why would the league bother changing the rule? After all, we’re talking about the NFL even more because of the bad officiating and stupid rulebook. The NFL has turned into a real sport + the allure of drama and soap opera-y plots off the field a la professional wrestling. That’s a recipe for billions of dollars.

So if we can’t get the NFL to simplify its rules, don’t we at least want to know how all this catch/non-catch bullshit came into existence in the first place? Who’s really responsible for these constant headaches we deal with almost weekly at this point?

Many experts will say it all started in 1999 with the “Burt Emanuel Rule”. Emanuel was a receiver for the Tampa Bay Bucs, and his team was facing the St. Louis Rams in that season’s NFC Championship Game. Towards the end of the game, with the Bucs losing 11-6, Emanuel caught a key 2nd down pass to keep Tampa’s hopes alive. But then the refs reviewed the catch, which no one could figure out the reason for doing, and determined it was an incompletion because the tip of the ball touched the ground while Emanuel was securing the ball. Two plays later, the Bucs’ chances were ruined and the Rams were on to the Super Bowl. During the offseason, the league changed the rule so that the ball could now touch the ground during a legal catch as long as the receiver maintained control. But this apparently brought about a lot of gray area, which is the same gray area the refs tend to bungle on a weekly basis now. It’s all here in this fantastic explanation.

But I’d like to throw out a different theory today. If you’ll bare with me for just another five minutes or so, I can prove definitively that this entire situation is the city of Cleveland’s fault.

First of all, the root cause of all these problems doesn’t reside with a single rule change. It goes back much further than that. You know what would immediately wipe away all this controversy about catching a football? If the forward pass never came into the NFL in the first place! Think about it. No forward pass = no players having the burden of catching a pass. It’s so obvious. So let’s go waaaaay back in history on the forward pass.

Please follow along as I use Wikipedia as my source for all quotes you’re about to see:

  • “1905 had been a bloody year on the gridiron; the Chicago Tribune reported 18 players had been killed and 159 seriously injured.”
    • Wait just a second. 18 people DIED while playing football in 1905? What the hell? I’m going to have to dig deeper into that at some point, but not today. But that fact stopped me in my tracks for about 20 minutes while researching this.
  • “There were movements to outlaw the game, but U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt personally intervened and demanded that the rules of the game be reformed.”
    • Thank you, Teddy. I wish there was some way I could personally repay you for saving football.
  • First legal pass: “On September 5, 1906, St. Louis University’s Bradbury Robinson’s first attempt at a forward pass fell incomplete and resulted in a turnover under the 1906 rules.”
    • Hold up. In 1906, any pass that was incomplete was a turnover? And we think the current rules are effed up?
  • “St. Louis coach Eddie Cochems is to forward passing what the Wright brothers are to aviation and Thomas Edison is to the electric light, according to historians.”
    • So all of this controversy over Dez Bryant’s non-catch, Megatron’s non-catch…it’s all this guy’s fault!
  • “This is disputed by historian David Nelson and others, who concluded that the first forward passes were thrown on Christmas Day 1905 in a match between two small colleges in Kansas.”
    • Ohh, so that’s why we actually celebrate Christmas. Because it’s the birthday of modern football. That makes so much more sense than what the Catholics celebrate Christmas for.
  • “According to Nelson, in that Christmas Day game, one team completed three passes and the other team completed two.”
    • Ahh, so your classic Titans-Jaguars game. Got it.
  • “That same St. Louis team led by Cochems was the first team to use the forward pass as a central feature to the offensive scheme as they compiled an undefeated 11-0 season in which they outscored opponents by a combined score of 407 to 11.”
    • Yeah, but did they win the Super Bowl? Because if not, they are HUGE CHOKERS!
  • “In 1913, Notre Dame head coach Jesse Harper showed how the forward pass could be used by a smaller team to beat a bigger one, first utilizing it to defeat rival Army. After it was used on a national stage in this game, the forward pass rapidly gained popularity.”
    • Of course this is Notre Dame’s fault! Everything’s Notre Dame’s fault!
  • “The first forward pass in a professional football game may have been thrown in an Ohio League game played on October 25, 1906. This Ohio League was the predecessor of today’s NFL. The quarterback of the Massillon Tigers, one of pro football’s first franchises, completed a short pass on that day while his team was on its way to winning 61-0 over the hapless West Virginia Mountain Staters.”
    • First of all, how dare they run up the score like that? Where’s the sportsmanship?!?!
    • More importantly, do you know where Massillon, Ohio, is located? Yep, just a little bit south of Cleveland. No wonder that city has endured the shittiest sports luck over the past century. It’s karma! They brought the forward pass into professional football. They’re responsible for all these stupid rules about catching, non-catching, two feet inbounds, toe drags, “acts common to the game”. Fucking Cleveland did this to us!
    • Or, I’m willing to split the responsibility between Cleveland and Notre Dame, if that’s what you’d prefer.

So there you have it. If it wasn’t for these barbarians mutilating such a beautiful sport, we’d probably still be treated to awesome games like this in 2015:

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NFL Divisional Round Recap: The Best Weekend of Football

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WOW.

So that’s why we always point to the Divisional Round as the best weekend of the NFL season.

Four games. Two nail-biters. Two underdog covers. One major upset.

And three polarizing, buzzworthy storylines that emerged from this incredible weekend. (Sorry, Carolina and Seattle, but you were a little boring, and played out mostly how we expected. Carolina, you didn’t deserve to be there and it never felt like you were really close to making it a game. Seattle, we get it. You’re good.)

First we had the Patriots beating the Ravens on Saturday in an epic game that leaves you feeling like neither team really deserved to lose. The major headline that emerged was either Bill Belichick outsmarting the Ravens by knowing the rulebook better, or Belichick abusing the rules and using “deception” to get an edge on a team he can’t beat straight-up, depending on what side you’re taking.

Next we were treated to another tight battle on Sunday afternoon when the NFC’s two most popular franchises traded blows for 60 minutes. Controversy struck in a major way when Dez Bryant caught, but didn’t catch, a 31-yard pass at the 1-yard line from Tony Romo with 4:42 left and the Cowboys trailing by five points. Just like in the Cowboys’ previous game, this one will be remembered mostly for the referee’s game-changing decision and the confusing, can’t-be-interpreted-by-even-the-most-intelligent-humans NFL rulebook.

And finally, the Colts supplanted the Broncos in their rightful spot in the AFC Championship game by making Peyton Manning look like he should be backing up Ryan Lindley. The most incredible part of this game was watching Twitter explode over the final five minutes with all corners of the earth sending Manning off to retirement even though he hadn’t yet (and still hasn’t) said he was done.

The Manning story takes the cake of these three headlines. Normally the Dallas/Green Bay ending would be the talk of Monday, but one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history looking that bad and seeming that unsure about his future wins the Watercooler Award.

And on that note, let’s plow through each game, starting with the upset in Denver and working our way backwards through the weekend.

Luck Grabs the Torch

 Indianapolis 24, Denver 13

(Manning most definitely did not passing the torch voluntarily.)

“I guess I just can’t give that simple answer. I’m processing it. I can’t say that. I could not say that.”

-Peyton Manning on if he’ll definitely return for the 2015 season

But if Manning is significantly hurt, or if he has some sort of arm fatigue that will stop him from getting back to something resembling full health, then he might be letting go of that torch involuntarily.

I’m still preaching patience to all the people who went crazy with comments about Manning’s career being over, but to hear him in the postgame press conference sounding so unsure of his future was strange.

It’s like people already forgot we were accusing Tom Brady of being done just 15 weeks ago. Let’s pump the brakes for just a minute on the Peyton eulogies, OK?

Here’s what else I noticed in this matchup:

  • The game wasn’t even close, and neither was the play of the two quarterbacks. Andrew Luck was 20 times better than Manning.
  • Mr. “Pitch Anything & Everything” finished 26-of-46 for 211 passing yards and a 27.9 QBR. But even those numbers were propped up with nearly 100 yards of garbage time from the Broncos. With four minutes left, the competitive portion of the game was over, and Manning was 17-of-34 with 119 yards.
  • Tweet of the weekend (Michael David Smith, managing editor of Pro Football Talk): “Next year CBS will replace Mike Carey with a guy flipping a coin. Accuracy rate will increase significantly.”
  • It’s uncanny how often Carey, a former official, is wrong when they ask him for his take on a call that’s being reviewed. I hope someone out there is keeping track. My guess would be that he’s gotten ~17% of them right this season, and even that might be generous.
  • In six of their road games this year, Indianapolis gave up point totals of 42, 24, 24, 51, 28 and 31 points. And some of their opponents in those games include teams like Cleveland, the Giants, and Houston.
  • The Broncos scored exactly 10 on that same team before garbage time.
  • I apologize to Andrew Luck for writing that his time isn’t yet here to be a mainstay in the AFC Championship Game. This could be the start of quite the run for him and his team.

“New York Bozos”

Green Bay 26, Dallas 21

Everyone heard Aaron Rodgers use that phrase at the line of scrimmage yesterday, either to make an adjustment or to confuse the Cowboys. But he might as well have yelled “Dallas Bozos” because that’s what the Cowboys looked like at the end of the first half. That’s when this game was truly decided.

The Cowboys were up 14-7 and driving at the end of the half. They had a chance to really make Green Bay and its fans panic throughout the 15-minute intermission. But then on 3rd & 1 with 40 seconds left (after the refs reversed a 1st down call for them), the Cowboys attempted a long pass instead of getting the 1st down with their reliable running game. It didn’t work, so they lined up for a 45-yard field goal. Then they got flagged for a false start. Then Dan Bailey missed the ensuing 50-yard kick. And suddenly Green Bay was at midfield with 30 seconds left and quickly turned the opportunity into three points.

A six-point swing that determined the game. Dallas lost by five.

Here’s what else I noticed:

  • I don’t mind Aaron Rodgers at all, but I am worried about the hyperbole of his heroics that will dominate the media for the next six days. Some will talk about him as if he singlehandedly found all the airplanes at the bottom of the ocean.
  • My friends and I made jokes about Matt Flynn seeing meaningful action in this game because of how hobbled Rodgers looked at times, but what wasn’t funny was when it seemed probable for a few minutes that Brandon Weeden would be prominently involved in a playoff game. That’s how bad Romo was limping around in the 3rd quarter. Flynn vs. Weeden in a deciding fourth quarter would have been the highest of high comedy.
  • Of course the end of this game was the best/worst/most riveting part (depends on who you ask). Dez Bryant caught a 31-yard pass down to the 1-yard line with less than five minutes to play. Any logical human saw that it was a catch. But the NFL rulebook doesn’t operate on logic, common sense, or simplicity. The popular line right now is that the referees got it right when they reversed the call and ruled the play an incomplete pass, but the NFL rules are the problem and it needs to change.
  • Mike Pereira, FOX’s resident official-turned-analyst, said Bryant needed to “perform an act common to the game on his way to the ground.” It’s probably not good when you need a definition to explain part of the definition of a catch.
  • This is probably why the officiating seems bad across the board. At least three games this weekend had frustratingly inconsistent calls. And that’s because of the impossible-to-figure-out rules.
  • Maybe I’m oversimplifying here, but shouldn’t the rule be: If you catch the ball, have control, and take multiple steps, it’s a completion regardless of what the ball does when you hit the ground. But if you’re making the catch while diving/falling/being taken to the ground without first taking steps, then the receiver has to keep control through the entire process.
  • That seems too simple for the NFL, doesn’t it?
  • Most disappointingly is that we were cheated out of an incredible ending. How epic would this game have been if the catch stands, the Cowboys score on their next play, and the Packers try to respond with a game-winning drive while down by either one or three points? (Dallas would have gone for the two-point conversion.)
  • At least Aaron Rodgers had a good sense of humor about the refereeing that totally went in his team’s favor on Sunday:

Did the game really happen if nobody saw it?

Seattle 31, Carolina 17 

In reality I’m sure plenty of people watched Seattle handle the Panthers on Saturday night, but millions of fans in Maryland and New England were probably in various stages of blackout, for different reasons, while that comparatively boring game was underway.

I won’t say that Seattle’s playoff schedule is on par with the Ravens’ end-of-season schedule when they got to face Case Keenum and Connor Shaw in the final two weeks, but the Seahawks just beat probably the worst team in playoff history and now host a one-legged Aaron Rodgers to advance to the Super Bowl. Seems fair.

The NFC has won four of the last five Super Bowls, and a fair argument during those years has been that the AFC was watered down so that conference’s Super Bowl representative never had to play the type of competition that the NFC representative was dealing with. Is that reversed this year? After all, FootballOutsiders.com has 10 of the league’s top 16 teams coming from the AFC.

I’m sure even Seattle fans will agree that if Rodgers looks bad next Sunday, their team really didn’t have any tests along the way to the big game in Arizona.

I have no other “what I noticed” notes from this game because after the Patriots’ win, I was emotionally spent, extremely inebriated, and in a state of slight comatose.

The Art of…Deception?

 New England 35, Baltimore 31

“It’s not something that anybody has ever done before. The league will look at that type of thing, and I’m sure they’ll make some adjustments and things like that.”

-John “sour grapes” Harbaugh

Why, John? Why would you assume the league is going to change their rules? Because you lost and got owned by a better coach who happened to know the rulebook just a little more thoroughly than you did? Why would you assume that the league has to change that rule?

What’s great is if they do ultimately change the rule about lining up only four offensive linemen, Harbaugh, his players and Ravens fans will talk about it as if that strategy was outlawed BEFORE their team choked away this playoff game. (Another instance of cheating by New England!)

And here’s the thing, I’m an equal opportunity criticizer. I’m a Patriots fan, but you know what Harbaugh’s immature whining sounded like? Belichick’s claim that Wes Welker’s hit on Aqib Talib in last year’s conference title game was one of the dirtiest he’s ever seen. No merit to the comments. Just emotional, angry coaches trying to put the blame elsewhere.

Here’s what else I noticed in this game (though the 11 Lagunitas I consumed might have made me see things that didn’t exist):

  • The best way I can describe the respect I have for the Ravens in the playoffs and the closeness of this matchup is to tell you how I was hyperventilating for 18 hours starting Friday night and not ending until the final whistle Saturday evening.
  • Very early on Saturday morning, like 1 a.m., I couldn’t fall back asleep so I went to the couch and plowed through five episodes of The Wire. I don’t get this way for postseason games against Indy, Pittsburgh, Houston and so on.
  • But despite my respect for the team, I still think Ravens fans are some of the worst. I kept my mouth shut for the most part leading up to this game, but they didn’t. And it was especially hilarious to see a lot of them tweeting things like “Game over, suck it, New England” before the 1st quarter had come to an end. Loved every second of it.
  • I won’t spend much time complaining about the officiating, but it was pretty horrific. The scary thing is that one of this past weekend’s crews has to be assigned the Super Bowl. Can’t wait to see which brilliant team of referees the NFL chooses for the biggest game of the year.
  • So the Patriots rushed for only 14 yards and also fell behind by multiple touchdowns on two occasions. Maybe don’t try that strategy again. Or do try it again, but let us know in advance so we can have all the proper medical equipment available to us ahead of time.
  • If you’re still curious about the Patriots rolling out only four offensive linemen for a few plays in the 4th quarter and the ensuing confusion, I found this espn.com article to be particularly helpful. It explains every detail of the situation and all the things Harbaugh could have been upset about.
  • Finally, here’s how I imagine the game story looked in the Baltimore newspapers and blogs on Sunday morning: “The New England Cheatriots were at their cheating best again on Saturday night as they escaped with a 35-31 win* over the heroic Baltimore Ravens. Tom Brady, in typical me-first fashion, threw the ball 50 times while only allowing his running backs seven combined carries. But that wasn’t the worst part. New England knew they couldn’t beat the Ravens straight-up with a boring, unimaginative gameplan, so they had to bend the rules a bit, which we know is their favorite thing to do. (Side note: Remember 18-1???? HAAAA) Sources say a group of Baltimore senators are trying to put together a special Congressional Hearing at this moment to make sure Bill Belicheat can never confuse another coach again by having only four offensive linemen on the field. We’re also not ruling out the possibility that the Cheatriots taped the Ravens’ practices this week and that’s the only reason they knew the play where Brady lateraled to Julian Edelman, who then threw a 51-yard touchdown to Danny Amendola, would work. How else could they confidently run such a play at that critical point in the game? Mr. Cool, Joe Flacco, once again outplayed the whining, crying, uncool Brady, and that’s why they had to bring in a receiver to do Brady’s job. HA!”

Since I’ve already rambled on long enough, I’ll spare you the details of my very profitable gambling weekend until the Championship Weekend picks come out in a few days. But it was indeed a VERY profitable weekend and I hope you followed my advice for once.