Good news: The NFL has clarified the catch rule, so we might finally be able to tell what a catch is, after all.
Bad news: Now no one can agree what a tackle is.
The NFL has a way to make things difficult, but luckily, the Washington Times can clear things up. Here’s what you need to know for the age-old — and we guess, new-age — questions of what’s a catch and what’s a tackle.
What’s a catch?
Get ready to erase the term “surviving the ground” from your vocabulary.
When the NFL changed the catch rule in March, the league’s competition committee got rid of the language that required receivers to hold onto the ball as they hit the ground.
Previously, this technicality caused for some of the league’s most controversial moments, from Calvin Johnson “dropping” what would have been a go-ahead touchdown pass in 2010 to Dez Bryant’s “no catch” in an NFC 2014 playoff game against the Green Bay Packers. Even last year, Pittsburgh’s Jesse James and Chicago’s Zach Miller had spectacular catches overturned.
Redskins wide receiver Paul Richardson wasn’t a fan of the old rule.
“I never really liked the controversy between what is and what’s not a catch because they’re saying catches that aren’t catches are balls that are caught and then dropped,” he said. “But if it’s caught and it’s dropped, then it’s [still] a catch. I never really liked it.”
The NFL now has three requirements for a catch: establishing control, two feet down or another body part in bounds and making a “football move” — the latter of which is defined as taking a third step, extending an arm for no gain or other similar motions.
If “football move” sounds like it could be debated, well, that is certainly a possibility. But the intent of the rule change was to make things simpler.
“There’s always gray areas, but certainly our guys are ready to make those calls,” referee Carl Cheffers told reporters during the Redskins’ training camp in Richmond.
What’s a tackle?
With that settled, let’s focus on the new issue: Rule 12.2.8, which the league refers to as the “Use of Helmet” rule and calls the most significant change to the rulebook this year.
“It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent,” the rule reads. It’s a step beyond governing helmet-to-helmet hits — it doesn’t matter whether the tackler’s helmet makes contact torso, legs or anywhere else.
It is a 15-yard penalty and, if called on a defensive player, an automatic first down for the offense. If a player under review “establishes a linear body posture” before making contact with his helmet, he has an unobstructed path to his opponent and the contact is “clearly avoidable,” then there are grounds for officials to eject the player from the game.
A player bracing for contact — for example, a running back putting his head down as he runs through the trenches — does not break the Use of Helmet rule, the league has clarified.
Here’s the $64,000 question: How will players actually tackle a moving target without leading with their heads?
The rule inspired alarming magazine headlines like “The NFL Isn’t Ready for How Big of a Disaster This Season Will Be.” The players themselves have ranged from confused and upset to livid. San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, for one, has criticized the rule in action all preseason.
“Even in a perfect form tackle the body is led by the head. The rule is idiotic and should be dismissed immediately,” he tweeted last month. “When you watch rugby players tackle they are still lead (sic) by their head. Will be flag football soon.”
The Redskins are generally part of this camp, too. Throughout training camp, officiating crews visited teams to make a presentation about this year’s rule changes and field questions. Referee Carl Cheffers and his crew visited Richmond on Aug. 12, but the meeting did little to clear everything up for some Redskins, even coach Jay Gruden.
The next week, Gruden expressed confusion over a penalty called on safety Fish Smithson in the Redskins’ second preseason game, in which Smithson made a seemingly clean tackle, but with his head lowered.
“It actually drew two flags and I don’t think it was a penalty, so I think we’re going to have some issues,” Gruden said. “Like I said before, guys running full speed, you’ve got to get your pads down. Your pads go down, your helmet’s going to go down slightly.”
The widely-held belief is that referees will call the penalty less frequently in the regular season than they did in August. They, too, had to learn the new rule and were likely erring on the side of caution in calling it during the preseason.
But come December or the postseason, don’t be surprised if a crucial game is decided not by whether a receiver survived the ground, but by whether a ref thinks a cornerback initiated contact with his helmet.
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