By now, you may have seen multiple plays, either live or in highlights, where the receiver seems to defy gravity and the laws of time and space to make an incredible catch. Some of these plays may have even been challenged by opposing coaches, or by the receiver’s coach when the pass was ruled as not caught, or “incomplete.” In case you weren’t paying close attention, or haven’t seen one of these circus performances in action, today’s lesson covers what a player must do to legally “catch” the ball.
Making a catch under NFL rules is not as easy as you might think. Let’s start with the definition of “possession,” taken from the NFL Digest of Rules. In the Digest, “possession” is defined as “[w]hen a player controls the ball throughout the act of clearly touching both feet, or any other part of his body other than his hand(s), to the ground inbounds.”
See what I mean?
Here is what it means to “catch” the ball, broken down into three simple parts:
1. The player must have the ball in one or both hands;
2. Once the ball is clearly controlled by the player, he must then have both feet* in bounds; and
3. As he falls to the ground, or goes out of bounds, he must continue to firmly control the ball in his hands.
Point 1 seems obvious, but there are a couple more details. First, needs to catch the ball before it hits the ground (i.e., no catching of a bounce). Second, he needs to have the ball firmly in his control; it can’t be bouncing around in his hands or spinning against his shoulder, etc.
Point 2 is where you can see examples of tremendous athleticism. When a pass is caught and the receiver clearly has control of the ball, the officials will then look to the receiver’s feet to make sure they are in bounds. If the play is at or near the sideline and the receiver’s momentum is carrying him out of bounds, he will channel his inner ballet dancer and point his toes so that they tap down or drag the turf for the completion. Here is one example of a great grab by Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson at the back of the end zone:
Point 3 emerges from the language “throughout the act …” from the definition of possession. Basically, once the player has caught the ball, he needs to continue to possess it as he lands on the ground and his momentum stops. Remember the post on fumbles? You may recall the axiom that the “ground can’t cause a fumble.” In this case, the ground can most certainly cause an incomplete pass. This is a fairly recent development in the evolution of the catch rule, and can lead to some seemingly harsh calls. A case in point is the following play when it appeared that Detroit Lions wide receiver caught the winning touchdown:
Who knew that something that seemed so simple could cause so much heartbreak? Welcome to football!
*College and high school rules only require one foot to be in-bounds.