Orlando, Fla. — The NFL announced 11 changes, alterations or permanent adoptions to playing rules at its annual league meeting, with two understandably generating the most attention — the simplification of what defines a catch and the prohibition of players leading with their helmet.
The catch rule has proven problematic the past several seasons as what have appeared to be common-sense receptions have routinely been overturned due to technicalities following replay review.
In January, commissioner Roger Goodell expressed concern about the state of the rule and acknowledged the league had been reviewing potential changes with the help of several former Hall of Fame receivers and multiple coaches.
The rule’s new wording, proposed by the league’s competition committee and unanimously approved by the league’s 32 owners, eliminates the controversial requirement to “complete the process,” maintaining possession of the ball throughout going to the ground.
A catch is now defined by three steps:
■A player must first secure control of the ball
■Control must be established in bounds.
■The player must perform a football act, which includes taking a step, tucking the ball away, and most importantly to the rule change, extending the ball forward.
The new rule would have prevented several well-known incompletions from being overturned by replay review, including Calvin Johnson’s touchdown against the Chicago Bears in the 2010 season opener and Dez Bryant’s stumbling fourth-quarter grab just short of the goal line against the Packers in the playoffs.
“What was happening was, on the field, the rule is pretty easy to officiate for officials,” competition committee chairman Rich McKay said. “They know what they are looking for, they make their calls. But when you get to replay and all of the sudden you slow it down frame-by-frame you can see the ball move just a little bit. You can see so many different things that you can’t see at full speed the rule got a little complicated.
“The rule just needed a re-write,” McKay said. “We needed to start over, re-write the rule, simplify it, narrow the window of time that was for a catch.”
While the simplification is likely to go over well with players and fans, alike, there will likely be more debate around the league’s expansion of a rule that prohibits players from initiating contact with their helmets.
Any player who lowers their helmet to make contact with an opponent will be penalized 15 yards, as well as be subjected to possible ejection. During a Wednesday press conference, Goodell repeatedly expressed the importance of removing the usage of the helmet from the game.
This move comes months after Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal injury lunging headfirst into a tackle attempt. McKay insisted Shazier’s injury wasn’t a reason for the change, but an example of why it’s needed.
“I think the impetus was research,” McKay said. “The more we saw of the concussion plays and the more there was a common technique, it became apparent that, listen, we need to get out of situationally saying if a player is targeted or if a defenseless player is in the air — we need to get to the technique to protect the person doing the hitting also. It could be Ryan Shazier. It could be many others. I don’t think that play was the impetus because I think that the research and the data was there before.
Many players have taken to social media to express concern about the change.
“In all honesty the refs already pretty bad with enforcing the defenseless player rule!,” Lions defensive back Quandre Diggs wrote on Twitter. “We have people that’s never played the game making rules!”
Goodell is hopeful the players will be more understanding once league representatives are able to sit down with the players and share their findings and rationale.
“You’re reacting to players who have not yet heard that dialogue, heard the basis of why we came to where we came,” he said. “I understand that, but that’s why I mentioned early on, our intent is to make sure we go in, go to each team and we have tape, all the analysis and work that was done in great coordination with our various teams, to be able to communicate that to them.
“We think this is going to help us take the helmet out of the game and get it back to where it’s a protective device as opposed to something that can be used a weapon.”