One post was not enough to sort through the deepest, darkest corners of the NFL rule book on the Lee Evans catch/no catch at the end of the Ravens – Patriots game. I posted a general commentary on the games earlier, but for those of you that love these details, Adrian the Canadian breaks the play down from a few more angles:
So I was hoping to delve into some nasty, ugly, complicated issues with the NFL’s instant replay system today, but, before doing so, I think we have to spin out the Lee Evans non-catch and the NFL’s awkward touchdown catch rule. First, Mike Pereira’s brief take at Football Zebras:
Clearly not a catch. Ball coming out before second foot clearly down. . . . No need to review it because it was clearly incomplete.
I don’t want to parse Pereira’s tweet too closely because I think we agree, but by saying “before second foot clearly down” it makes it sound like the replay official upheld the call because there wasn’t incontrovertible evidence that Evans’s foot was down, not because Evans didn’t have his foot completely down. This suggests that the play warranted closer inspection with a booth review. I agree with that, although I’m not sure it matters. Even if Evans had both feet down with control, the NFL rules still conclude that what Evans did was not a catch.
In a comment on my last post, Jon A. suggested that the Calvin Johnson Rule may have been the reason for the incompletion. While Item 3 from my last post also applies (Megatron still had to get both feet down) his catch is also governed by a different section of the “Completed or Intercepted” section of the Rule Book. Here’s the relevant text:
Player Going to the Ground. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.
So Johnson must not only get both feet “completely on the ground” but also maintain control of the ball through the process of contacting the ground (this applies for sideline catches too). Johnson, at least in the official’s interpretation, did not. The outcry over the Johnson catch is due to the fact that this rule is perceived as “under-inclusive.” In other words, there are things that we consider a “catch” (in the metaphysical way described in this Slate article) that are not a “catch” under the rulebook’s definition. Can we draft better language that conforms to our idea of what a “catch” is? That’s something for another post.
Back to Evans. This rule doesn’t apply here because Evans didn’t go to ground (or out of bounds) with apparent possession. There’s no requirement for him to maintain possession through any action, he merely needs to establish that he made a valid catch. Let’s take another, reasonable interpretation of the rule, similar to what Pereira suggests, and say that the rule does not require Evans’ foot to be completely down, but only requires Evans to touch the ground with his foot when he is in possession of the ball. Is it a catch then? This is a more difficult question. The note in my last post does not help us determine whether what Evans did is a catch; it deals with contact by the defender after the catch has been completed and we’re still trying to determine whether what Evans did constitutes catching the ball. Is there anything else that could help us? Why yes! Let’s look up a few paragraphs in the rule book:
Article 3 Completed or Intercepted Pass. A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:
(a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
(b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
(c) maintains control of the ball long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.).
Note 1: It is not necessary that he commit such an act, provided that he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so.
If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body other than his hands to the ground, or if there is any doubt that the acts were simultaneous, it is not a catch.
Ah! Evans’ catch appears to fail this definition as well. Yes, we can argue that he did secure control and got both feet down but look at the bolded text. For a catch to be valid, a player must have the ball long enough to be able to “make a move common to the game” (this used to be the infamous “football move”). The NFL offers us further guidance here saying that if the loss of possession was either concurrent with the receiver contacting both feet to the ground or potentially concurrent to both feet touching the ground, there is no catch. Thus, even if Evans clearly touched both feet to the ground before the ball was knocked away by the defender, it is likely that he simply did not have possession long enough for what he did to be considered a catch. Replay, in this case, actually exacerbates the problem by making it seem like he had the ball for longer than he did. Here’s another way of asking the question: if Evans had caught the ball on the two yard line, would this have been a fumble? Clearly not because he didn’t maintain control long enough to execute a “move common to the game” – therefore, incomplete.
One objection to this reasoning would be that it doesn’t matter what Evans did after he had both feet down – play is dead at that point because he has possession in the end zone. This is where the Calvin Johnson rule is illustrative. It doesn’t apply here, but that rule clearly shows that what happens after a player has possession with both feet down in the end zone can be determinative of whether what the player did is, by rule, a catch. This may seem counter-intuitive and, frankly, it is. But such is the NFL rule book: what you do after you catch the ball can determine whether you caught the ball in the first place. It’s not quite quantum physics, but it’s close.