By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — This past offseason, the NFL “fixed” the crummy old catch rule. Huzzah! There was merriment and wonder across the land.
There was but one minor issue, and that was that the league actually didn’t fix anything. Sure, the league rewrote the language for what constitutes a catch so that Jesse James’ drop and Corey Clement’s Super Bowl bobble would now officially be considered catches. Sweet. But in the process of rearranging their language, they opened the door to a whole new set of confusing and unclear possibilities.
And it didn’t take long at all for those issues to appear in the 2018 season.
The most prominent case Thursday night’s league kickoff game between Atlanta and Philadelphia came early in the third quarter, on the Falcons’ first drive of the second half. On a first-and-10 from his own 32-yard line, Matt Ryan threw a pass up the right sideline for all-world wideout Julio Jones.
The receiver bobbled the pass while falling to the ground, but once he hit the ground he held the ball tightly against his shoulderpad. The ball stopped moving, as Jones had it quite secured, before his body slid out of bounds.
Jones popped up and confidently spun the ball down on the turf, after making what he believed to have been an impressive catch for a gain of about 50 yards. But then he got the bad news from the official that he had been ruled out of bounds.
The Falcons challenged the play, and after a commercial break, referee John Hussey shared this detailed explanation: “The ruling on the field stands as called. Incomplete pass.”
Terry McAulay, the former referee who was hired in the offseason to help NBC decipher the rules of the game, did not agree with the decision made by the NFL’s replay office, which is headed by Al Riveron.
“I really agree [that it should have been ruled a catch],” McAulay said on the broadcast. “This looks like a definitive angle. He pins the ball to his shoulder right there in bounds. There’s no movement at all after he does that. You know, we knew they were going to be a little more circumspect about reversing this year, but I think they went a little bit too far that time. I think there’s clear, definitive evidence.”
Sounds familiar, no?
Jones — though this isn’t surprising — did not leave open any room for belief that he did anything other than catch the football.
“What do you mean, ‘Look like it’? What do you mean ‘look like’? You know what’s going on,” Jones told reporters when asked about “what looked like” a catch.
The Falcons ended up losing, 18-12, and on this drive in question, they punted. The ruling presumably took between three and seven points off the board for Atlanta, so any and all gripes that might still be lingering are legitimate.
Jones’ catch/non-catch has drawn the most attention, but it wasn’t the only suspect catch/non-catch call of the night.
The first confounding call came very early, less than nine minutes into the first quarter of the first game of the season. It came on a short pass over the middle from Ryan to tight end Austin Hooper. It was only a gain of three yards, but considering it came inside the 10-yard line, the Philadelphia staff decided to challenge the play after seeing a replay. And with good reason.
Replay clearly showed that Hooper used the ground to help himself complete the catch. Hooper had the ball in his hands while falling down, and he clearly lost control of the football multiple times while going to the turf.
McAulay, making his broadcast debut for this one, actually agreed with the decision. His explanation:
“This is kind of what we thought we’d see this year. He has firm control, and then the ball hits the game, and then there is ball movement. One of the changes to the rule was that ball movement doesn’t automatically mean loss of control. So I think they did the right thing by letting it stand. It’s not clear and obvious that the ruling on the field was wrong.”
That’s all well and good … if the ball is moving around on top of the player’s body, or from hand to hand, or on a player’s chest, etc., etc., etc. But when it’s quite clearly the ground that’s causing the movement of the football? It should perhaps not be ruled a catch.
Former head of officiating Dean Blandino at least seemed to think so, based on this tweet he sent out unsolicited after the ruling:
But in a fascinating twist of NFL obfuscation, Blandino actually semi-agreed with the decision to stick with the ruling on the field, because apparently video evidence of the ground moving a football does not qualify as “video evidence” that the ground made the football move. Interesting.
Blandino also agreed with the ruling on the Jones non-catch.
The point of citing Blandino and McAulay here is not to say, “See! See! These guys agree with me and bolster my point that these calls were wrong! See! DO YOU SEE?!” Blandino’s words don’t carry that much weight around these parts, anyway.
It is instead to take two men — one who worked as an NFL referee from 2001-17, and one who ran the NFL officiating department from 2013-16 and worked in the league since the ’90s — and spotlight how neither of them truly understand the rules of the game. At least, they showed that there are varying levels of interpretation on this new catch rule.
And if those two don’t know, one can safely assume that all NFL referees and officials don’t necessarily have the same view on this rewritten rule. So all the NFL really did here was take one set of somewhat-confusing language and replace it with another set of somewhat-confusing language. (Hey, maybe Riveron and the replay folks simply ruled that Hooper “had the ability” to have taken a third step. Or maybe he “had the ability” to extend the ball forward but just chose not to do it. That makes sense. OK good rule.)
It’s funny, really, what this much-hyped new catch rule did in the opening game — the opening game! — of the season. It took a masterfully athletic play from Julio Jones and threw it in the garbage can, and it took a clumsy drop from Austin Hooper and rewarded it.
That’s not the point. Or at least, it shouldn’t be the point.
What are we even doing here?
Now, as much as any time before, the NFL can’t answer that question. And we’re only through one game.