The NFL has run into yet another huge controversy with its catch rule that people hate and that many believe cost the Dallas Cowboys a win in the playoffs when Dez Bryant’s amazing catch was overturned.
Even now, after the catch has been watched ad nauseam from numerous different angles and every conceivable speed, the debate rages on as to whether Bryant possessed the ball long enough and whether he performed a “football act.”
The reason the debate is far from settled is because the NFL’s catch rule is so complicated, and the reason the rule is so complicated dates back 15 years before Sunday’s 26-21 Green Bay victory to another catch that was overturned, costing a team a chance to win a playoff game.
In the NFC championship game following the 1999 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were trailing by 11-5 to the St. Louis Rams with about a minute to play and the ball at the Rams’ 35-yard line. The Bucs, facing a long second-and-23, appeared to complete a 12-yard pass to Bert Emanuel.
But the Rams challenged the call, and the catch was overturned.
In 1999, the NFL’s catch rule was pretty basic, if not silly. No matter what the receiver did with the ball, if it touched the ground during the attempt to make the catch, the rule said it was an incomplete pass.
So even though Emanuel clearly controlled the ball, it did touch the ground.
Instead of a manageable third-and-11, the Bucs faced a third-and-23 and two plays later, the game was over, and the Rams moved on to the Super Bowl.
The following season, the NFL changed the rule, now known as the Bert Emanuel Rule. The result is that the ball can touch the ground as long as the player maintains control throughout the process.
But that change brought up other grey areas, the biggest of which is the concept of when does the actual catch stop and when is a player performing what the league calls “a football act.”
So the rule has become even more complicated, and officials must now determine, in the case of the Bryant non-catch, whether the player has taken controlled steps and is reaching or if this is all just part of the process of falling to the ground.
And this all started with Emanuel. To most observers, Emanuel made a good football play and caught the ball. So to avoid that happening again, the NFL complicated the heck out of the rulebook only to be once again facing the same situation.
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