Dez Bryant would have caught it had he been playing in 2020 and not in 2014. This was the NFL’s goal when it simplified the catch rules that robbed the then-Cowboys wide receiver of a critical play in that season’s NFC divisional playoff game against the Packers.
From the league’s perspective, the phrase “Dez caught it” became common verbiage in the following years for all of the wrong reasons. It was the most notable among many examples of the NFL’s rules to complete a catch (or an interception) being too ambiguous.
The NFL unsuccessfully tweaked the wording of its catch rules a few months after the Bryant play, and after a couple more seasons of confusion regarding the interpretation of the rules, another tipping point arrived.
A massive Steelers-Patriots game late in the 2017 season was decided in the last minute by a baffling incompletion call on what appeared to be a Jesse James touchdown catch. Technically, the call was correct under the letter of the law. But it was then when the NFL realized there were too many letters in the law.
The public was told by NFL officiating chief Al Riveron that James did not score against New England because he failed to “survive the ground” after he lunged forward with the ball and crossed the goal line as part of his catching motion. So the NFL the following spring simply stripped such ridiculous language out of its catch standards and simplified the rules.
Below is are the NFL catch rules the league established that year. They remain in place in 2020.
NFL catch rules in 2020
A few months after NFL team owners voted to pass simplified catch rules in March of 2018, Riveron told Sporting News the league did so in the name of entertainment. He insisted it was not a reaction to the persistent confusion regarding NFL catch rules.
“I think we got to a point where fans, the office, coaches, players wanted to see more exciting plays,” Riveron said. “How do we make this particular play a catch? How do we take the Dez Bryant play and make it a catch and still stay within the rules and the confines? How do we get these exciting plays back in the game?
“I know we’ve come up with a great rule.”
The NFL’s simplified catch rules, which also apply to interceptions, require the player to do three things: Control the ball, get two feet or another body part down, and make a “football move,” like a third step/reach reach for the line to gain; or the ability to perform such a move.
Below is the official language of the NFL’s catch rules, which can be found in Rule 8, Section 1, Articles 3-4 in the league’s rule book.
A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) in the field of play, at the sideline, or in the end zone if a player, who is inbounds:
- secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
- touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
- after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, performs any act common to the game (e.g., tuck the ball away, extend it forward, take an additional step, turn upfield, or avoid or ward off an opponent), or he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so.
- Movement of the ball does not automatically result in loss of control.
- If a player, who satisfied (a) and (b), but has not satisfied (c), contacts the ground and loses control of the ball, it is an incomplete pass if the ball hits the ground before he regains control, or if he regains control out of bounds
- A receiver is considered a player in a defenseless posture throughout the entire process of the catch and until the player is capable of avoiding or warding off the impending contact of an opponent.
- If a pass is caught simultaneously by two eligible opponents, and both players retain it, the ball belongs to the passers. It is not a simultaneous catch if a player gains control first and an opponent subsequently gains joint control. If the ball is muffed after simultaneous touching by two such players, all the players of the passing team become eligible to catch the loose ball.
- If a player, who is in possession of the ball, is held up and carried out of bounds by an opponent before both feet or any part of his body other than his hands touches the ground inbounds, it is a completed or intercepted pass. It is not necessary for the player to maintain control of the ball when he lands out of bounds.