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How replays have ruined the NFL’s catch rule

The NFL could work to simplify the controversial catch rule this offseason. (AP)

In late 2017, a reporter asked Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin – a veteran player with seven years of experience as a pro – if he knows what a catch is.

“I do, yeah,” Baldwin said. “Oh, you mean as it pertains to the NFL rules? No, I don’t.”

The response was met with laughs from reporters, an acknowledgement of the inconsistency of the league’s catch rule. It was a problem that reared its head in several games throughout the season, a continuing trend from years’ prior that has resulted in more than a few baffling calls.

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One such instance (and the impetus behind the question that was lobbed Baldwin’s way) was a Dec. 18 meeting between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. Down 24-19 with 52 seconds left in the game, Ben Roethlisberger threw a 10-yard pass to Steelers tight end Jesse James, who snatched the ball just outside of the goal line and fell into the end zone. The play was ruled a touchdown on the field and Jones’ teammates joined him in celebration of what was – by any initial impression – a game-winning drive.

Upon review, the touchdown call was overturned. Two plays later, Patriots safety Duron Harmon picked off a pass from Roethlisberger in the end zone. Game over.

“In my mind, we’ve begun to torture the rule a little bit, the same way we’ve done it in some other rules,” Atlanta Falcons president and Chairman of the NFL’s Competition Committee Rich McKay told 710 ESPN Seattle’s John Clayton.

“In this rule, what’s happened is replay — and the quality of replay and the impact of replay — continues to go up. And the reason it does is because we now have 4K television; at some point, we’re going to have 20K television. You’re going to be able to see anything, and they can slow it down to frame by frame. As we’ve done that, we’ve added provisions to the catch rule.”

(One of those provisions is the ability to “survive the ground.” According to the league’s vice president of officiating, Alberto Riveron, an inability to do so was the reason behind the no-catch call for James.)

“Well guess what? It hasn’t changed on-field officiating,” McKay continued. “They still officiate the catch the exact same way they officiated it 20 years ago. They look for a firm grasp and control, a clean catch, two feet or a body part, and they look for a time element, (meaning) were they able to hang on? Now with replay it’s getting hard because the guys that are judging replay are seeing completely different things than they ever saw before; more cameras, better quality, more ability to slow it down. We’ve allowed our rule, in the way we’ve written it and all the nuances we’ve put to it in going to the ground, we’ve allowed that rule to be driven a little bit by replay.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell also voiced his concern over the catch rule ahead of Super Bowl LII, when he told reporters he hoped the competition committee could bring more clarity. The committee will hold meetings over the next two months, according to ESPN, and could present a new rule in March.

“We need to go back and look at that with a fresh look, and that’s what we will do,” McKay said. “We will try to make it simple, we will try to make sure you clearly understand it, and that we don’t just continue to move because of replay.”