The Hot Corner: The Catch
Issue   |   Tue, 01/23/2018 - 22:44

The final weeks of the NFL season offered football fans some compelling drama, of both the sports and middle school variety. The Vikings made a near impossible comeback to earn a spot in the NFC championship, thanks to a missed tackle reminiscent of a blindfolded child whiffing at a piñata. And in Foxborough, we have seen glimpses of humiliating palace intrigue. Tom Brady apparently has introduced the Patriots to their Yoko Ono, a quack ‘doctor’ who makes Tony Bosch look like Rosalind Franklin and has pushed the — shall we say ‘interesting’ — claim that drinking water might prevent sunburn (the Patriots have denied these stories of infighting). In between the brief moments of intrigue, however, fans have mostly been confused.

Football’s most perplexing issue has recently been the shrouded definition of a ‘catch.’ In the days of grainy, zoomed-out television footage, referees simply decided whether the player had secured possession of the ball in bounds. Since then, however, slow-motion replay has made football organizations apt to second-guess these rulings. Since 2010, the NFL has tinkered endlessly with the wording in its definition of a catch. Now there is a “process of the catch,” a step by step formula that sounds a lot more like filling out a 1040 than catching a football. After first securing possession of the ball, the player either fulfills one of a set of obtuse qualifications to become a “runner” or remains a “faller,” a status either more or less enviable depending on the situation. Distinguishing between a “runner” and a “faller” is difficult business, especially given that a player may be deemed a “runner” without doing anything that we in everyday life would think to call ‘running.’

Predictably, the increasingly bizarre definition of football’s most foundational act has led to considerable controversy. Catch-related furor struck most recently in the matchup on Dec. 17 between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots. Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James (not to be confused with the nineteenth-century outlaw or the modern television personality) appeared to catch a pass that, following video review, was ruled incomplete. In one moment, just about every football fan realized the absurdities of the NFL’s 30-step catch criteria. And since then, broadcasters and spectators alike have hesitated to predict the outcome of these video reviews. If the Jesse James play is not a catch, what is?

This hesitation reveals the NFL’s real problem. The action on the field has been divorced from any sense of finality. A jaw-dropping touchdown reception now is met with tepid applause, and then a lengthy video review. The viewing audience, along with the players, coaches and broadcasters, sit listlessly as a referee stares at a Microsoft Surface held aloft by a technician in a brightly colored jumpsuit and talks on a headset to a faceless, wizard-of-Oz-style review chief “back in New York.” After some time, he returns with a verdict that is rarely accompanied by compelling explanation.

Video replay has been around for a while, but its use is now so frequent and its results so inexplicable that fans have become jaded. The triumphant exclamation from the Music City Miracle, “There are no flags on the field, it’s a miracle!” has turned into, “Well, for now, it’s been ruled a touchdown.”

Many might say that a delay of gratification is a slight price to pay for a greater chance of correctness. This past season, however, has hardly been an endorsement for the idea that replay review can fix the NFL’s problems with rule confusion. Replay reviews often end with infuriating and seemingly incorrect decisions. In an Oct. 15 game between the New York Jets and Patriots, Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins caught a pass from Josh McCown around the Patriots’ five-yard line. Three New England defenders attempted to down the 6’6”, 258-pound Seferian-Jenkins as he powered across to the pylon. Seferian-Jenkins knocked over the pylon, the referee signaled a touchdown and the Jets celebrated. However, the instant replay came with its trademark bucket of cold water. The slow-motion replay showed that New England corner Malcolm Butler had, for the briefest of moments, jarred the ball loose. Seferian-Jenkins clearly regained possession, but exactly when was incredibly difficult to discern from the video. Perhaps it was before he crossed the plane, perhaps after and, it is possible, after he had gone out of bounds. Regardless, it was almost impossible to argue that the evidence clearly overturned the call on the field. Nevertheless, the replay official shocked the audience. Seferian Jenkins, apparently, had fumbled through the end zone and caused a touchback. What was originally Jets touchdown became a turnover. Pats’ ball on the 25.

This was a clear example of overzealous behavior from the replay official, whoever that may be. Replay’s inadequacies, however, can go the opposite direction as well. Failure to review calls in important moments can have a massive impact on the outcome of the game. In the wild card game between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, Carolina safety Mike Adams intercepted a fourth-down pass from Drew Brees 16 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage. Adams’ mental fixation on what almost always is his job cost his team almost 20 yards of field position. The Panthers in that moment needed to score with time winding down, and the 16 yards likely affected their play-calling (the Panthers went on to lose, 31-26). At some point in the “process of the catch,” however, it looked as if the ball might have come loose, meaning the play would only be an incomplete pass. All turnovers in the NFL are supposed to be reviewed, but this one for some reason was not. The Saints may well have caught a break, and the call stood as it was. Only a couple plays later, replay’s weaknesses came in again to help the Saints. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was flagged for a questionable intentional grounding violation, a call with which other officials reportedly disagreed. Replay review, however, cannot be used to confirm penalties, and the call, however controversial, stood.

The end of the Saints-Panthers game became about fickle rules as much as the play on the field. This was partially due to replay review, but also to an embarrassing error on the in-game officials’ part. Following the intentional grounding call, the officials should have run 10 seconds off the game clock. However, before the replay people in New York stepped in to remind them, they did no such thing. Even for these officials, whom the NFL pays fairly handsomely to be its arbiters, the rules are just too much to handle.

The referees from another wild card matchup that day would sympathize with their rule fatigue. Tennessee Titans’ quarterback Marcus Mariota took a brutal hit from Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker Derrick Johnson during the second quarter of the afternoon game. At some point following the initial contact the ball had come loose and was recovered by the Chiefs. Yet the officiating crew blew the play dead, ruling that Mariota’s forward progress had been stopped and he was down before the ball left his hands. Perfectly reasonable, save for the obvious fact that he was standing still — there was no progress to arrest. It was a very obvious error, and anyone viewing the replay could correct it. Nobody, however, would get that chance. Forward progress is not a reviewable call.

In the NFL’s quest for perfection, it has lost sight of what it should value. It has created a set of rules that are impossible to understand, defying common sense and basic intuition. And it has started a system of review that “fixes” errors that do not exist and fails to correct others that do. All the while, the NFL has taken away the finality that makes sports so exciting. In sports, scrutiny is not always the best approach. Sometimes you can let the kids play.