The NFL took a lot of heat in January after a play by Dez Bryant was ruled an incomplete pass in the Dallas Cowboys' playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. To the average fan, it looked like Bryant caught the ball, made a "football move" by leaping for the goal line, and thus made a catch (he then lost control of the ball as he fell to the ground). When the officials called the play incomplete, Cowboys fans - and many NFL fans and writers - threw up their hands in confusion, disgust, or both.
Today the league announced modifications to the rule to clarify what constitutes a "catch." While it won't be popular, it's a leap in the right direction and just about as good as it's going to get.
There are two key issues the rule clarification address.
Currently a player in possession of the ball does not have to maintain possession to complete a catch if he has made a "football move." On the other hand, if he's falling to the ground in the process of making the catch, he does have to maintain possession. In the case of Bryant's catch, he may have made a football move (diving for the end zone) while falling to the ground.
The rule as it is written now is simply too subjective. The biggest problem with most sports rules is the level at which they invite subjectivity. It's why I've long despised the "intentional grounding" rule. Most of the time there's no measurable way to judge intent on the field. Even within the rule, the NFL has tried to address that concern, creating provisions about the quarterback being between the tackles and an eligible receiver being "in the area" of a pass. Yet that "in the area" still invites plenty of subjectivity.
Certainly this "catch" rule clarification doesn't eliminate subjectivity entirely. This isn't a question of whether a toe was on the line or not, something to which there is an ultimate objective answer. At some level the officials have to determine whether a player has "established himself as a runner." Subjectivity will always be part of the rule; The NFL's job is to reduce its impact as much as possible.
It's a lot easier to determine if a player has established himself as a runner then whether he made a "football move." Whether a player is able run with the football after a catch is relatively clear. Yet what is a "football move"? Is reaching the ball out as a player falls to the ground a "football move"? Is turning your body a "football move"? How about one step? Two steps? There are lots of acts we see on football fields, but without a detailed list of every possible action by a player, "football move" is simply too vague.
The other key issue with the current rule is that it contradicts itself. If you have the ball in your hands and you make a "football move" while "falling to the ground," does the player have to maintain possession of the ball or not? He doesn't if he makes the football move, but he does if he falls to the ground.
This clarification removes the discrepancy. If a player is falling to the ground, he cannot be establishing himself as a runner. Even if you have an issue with the first benefit of the rule change, this one is crystal clear.
While reaction to the rule clarification was immediately hostile (as it is with most of the things the NFL does these days), this announcement is a good thing. It removes some level of subjectivity to the definition of "a catch" and clears up a discrepancy.
This is just about as good as it's going to get.
Cyd Zeigler is a high school football official in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter @CydZeigler.