For the second entry in this 12 week series, I have decided to address catches. Transitioning to this topic from pass interference seems natural–we talked about all the illegal ways to prevent a catch, now we can address what actually qualifies as one. This may seem rudimentary for even a nine-year-old; but, as football has advanced, the concept of catching a pass has become more intricate and nuanced than our nine-year-old selves could ever have conceived. The problem lies in the football mob–which, coincidentally, has the intellectual acumen of a nine-year-old (and that may be generous). We need a break to build approach to make our perception of what should be a catch and the reality of what actually is more congruent*. So, I will try. I make no promises, and again, reading this may get you irritated with random loud strangers at games. You were warned.
Keep in mind that the collegiate canon of rules will be used primarily, but I plan to highlight key differences in professional football.
*This is a geometry term. Fear not, there is no geometry here.
Alright, I promised to start with the basics, so here we go.
The NCAA rulebook defines a catch thusly:
ARTICLE 3. a. To catch a ball means that a player:
1. Secures control of a live ball in flight with his hands or arms before the ball touches the ground
2. Touches the ground in bounds with any part of his body, and then
3. Maintains control of the ball long enough to enable him to perform an act common to the game.
4. Satisfies paragraphs b, c, and d below.
I have shortened the definition to remove the explanation paragraphs for now. Paragraphs b, c, and d address specific conditions pertinent to the play of the game, but don’t forget about them because they are the crux of this entire article and we will get there in a moment. But first, let’s look at the numbered list.
“…secures control of a live ball in flight with his hands or arms before the ball touches the ground.”
This is our nine-year-old–that’s 4th grade right?–definition of a catch. You stop the ball with your hands or arms before it hits the ground. Everyone good with this? It can’t be a catch if you don’t catch it. We press on!
“…touches the ground in bounds with any part of his body, and then…”
This is an unnecessarily suspenseful list item. It gives me anxiety. But this part is important: ANY part of the player’s body that touches down in bounds establishes him in bounds and therefore eligible to complete the catch provided he follows through with it (that’s the “and then” part). This part of the rule does not explicitly say “one foot down.” Please understand this. If any part of the player’s body first touches down in bounds, he can complete the catch. These body parts include, but aren’t limited to: a foot, a knee, the butt, the shoulders, an elbow, a calf, or a toe. If the first touch is out of bounds, then it does not matter if any subsequent part of him touches in bounds. One foot out and one foot in is also considered out of bounds. If multiple points of contact are on the ground, they must all be in bounds; otherwise the player is out of bounds by Rule. The definition of incomplete pass highlighting this is provided below, emphasis mine.
ARTICLE 7. a. Any forward pass is incomplete if the ball is out of bounds by Rule (Rule 4-2-3) or if it touches the ground when not firmly controlled by a player. It also is incomplete when a player leaves his feet and receives the pass but first lands on or outside a boundary line, unless his progress has been stopped in the field of play or end zone (Rule 4-1-3-p) (A.R. 2-4-3-III and A.R.7-3-7-I).
In this case, “first landing” would constitute a simultaneous landing where one foot is out of bounds.
“…maintains control of the ball long enough to enable him to perform an act common to the game.”
Control is crucial. It is the sticking point of most rulings, and often what most replays investigate in catch/no catch reviews. Control means ball security. You cannot bobble the ball while falling out of bounds and get credit for the catch, etc.–this is obvious. The announcer jargon for this is a “football move” and they say it with such authority like it’s inclusive in the rulebook. It’s not. “Act common to the game” is the governing term. This includes running, going to the ground, going out of bounds, juking, spinning, diving, or tucking the ball to the body. This terminology casts a wide net and provides the officials discretion to adjudicate grey areas. Basically, this is the driving force behind the incomplete/catch-fumble play and the maintaining control while going to the ground play. In the former, the receiver fulfills all requirements of a catch, but fails to perform a common act because the ball is stripped-this is incomplete, not a fumble.
The latter example is a little trickier. It’s time we revisited those paragraphs I cut, emphasis mine.
b. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent) he must maintain complete and continuous control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or in the end zone. This is also required for a player attempting to make a catch at the sideline and going to the ground out of bounds. If he loses control of the ball which then touches the ground before he regains control, it is not a catch. If he regains control inbounds prior to the ball touching the ground it is a catch.
c. If the player loses control of the ball while simultaneously touching the ground with any part of his body, or if there is doubt that the acts were simultaneous, it is not a catch. If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball, even if it touches the ground, will not be considered loss of possession; he must lose control of the ball in order for there to be a loss of possession.
d. If the ball touches the ground after the player secures control and continues to maintain control, and the elements above are satisfied, it is a catch.
That, while dense, is worded fairly clearly. If the player is going to the ground while trying to complete a catch, control must be maintained the entire time. So, if a player performs a miraculous effort to secure a ball and land with one foot in bounds before falling and loses the ball when he hits, the pass is incomplete. This is true on any boundary of consequence, including the end zone. A player cannot lose control on the way to the ground or upon contacting the ground and complete a catch. Paragraph C provides reinforcement for the incompletion rule referenced in the foregoing and also provides for minor movements of the football that do not constitute a loss of control. Paragraph D relates to the fact that once the ball is considered caught by Rule and the receiver becomes a runner, it can touch the ground so long as control is maintained and the earlier requirements are met.
Finally, let’s talk about a simultaneous catch, which is always pointed to by idiot fans to justify why their guy should keep the ball. This occurs when two opposing players catch a football at the same time. This looks like it happens a lot more often than it does–for instance: the Fail Mary that is the featured image was NOT a simultaneous catch, despite being ruled so. Most of the time either the defender or the receiver has primary control and the other player is simply trying to take the ball. If the players meet in the air, the ball belongs to the first man to the ground. It has to be a simultaneous landing for it to be a simultaneous catch. If it is, the play is blown dead and the catch is awarded to the offense. There is not another way for a simultaneous catch to play out. They’re like Bigfoot, lots of people will swear think they’ve seen it, but they’re really just confused.
Now, as you have seen, all of these rules apply to the collegiate level. The NFL rule for catches on boundaries of consequence is two feet down; apart from that and a few other nuances, the rules and requirements are generally the same. Moreover, understanding the mechanics of a football catch will help you turn a more discerning eye to plays on the field. I hope I have explained the criteria for a catch thoroughly enough to be helpful. As with everything else, football is built on cases and practical observations, so nothing in the rule book is so complete to be without ambiguity. Moreover, you will still disagree with the officials from time to time–especially when they’re wrong–but hopefully it won’t be because of your false impression of the rules.
Last bit of geometry, I promise:
QED. Catches are harder than they seem.
Last Week’s Crib Sheet: Pass Interference