Last Sunday in New Orleans, Chicago Bears tight end Zach Miller latched on to a long pass in the end zone. I say “latched on” because, according to the officiating crew after the ensuing scoring review, Miller did not complete what would commonly be referred to as a “catch.”
Miller suffered a horrific knee dislocation during the play and, after being carted off the field and taken to the hospital, vascular surgeons would have to perform emergency surgery in order to save his leg. The immediate agony of the injury caused him to loosen his grip on the ball, and this was taken into account during the official's video review.
While the play was under review, former referee Dean Blandino, now a member of the Fox broadcast crew who stands by to impart wisdom about the nuances of the NFL rulebook, chimed in. Blandino, who developed the league’s replay system and, according to ESPN, “is also largely responsible for both its reversal standards and interpretations of the catch rule,” said that he was certain Miller had caught the ball and that the play would be upheld. However, when the on-field referee addressed the Superdome crowd after the review, he ruled that the call would be reversed. Miller did not “complete the catch.”
Blandino wasn’t alone in his confusion. On Tuesday, fellow former ref Mike Pereira expressed his dismay regarding the ruling while on a radio show, asking, “Why are plays being reversed when we can't find anything?” Current NFL senior VP of officiating Al Riveron has since defended the Miller ruling. He has also defended the negation of a touchdown by Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins in Week 6, as well as the decision to not count a would-be winning score for the Lions in Week 3.
That something so elemental to the game itself could be up for debate is pretty ridiculous. It’d be like if the NBA determined three-pointers not by a line painted on the floor, but by a referee’s loose interpretation of multiple descriptions of what three-pointers should look like in given situations. Still, disputes over what constitutes a catch and what doesn't are pretty commonplace in the NFL.
The NFL has been refining and updating its definition of what a catch is for at least two decades. In 2010, Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions famously had a game-winning touchdown overruled for “not completing the process” of a catch in the end zone. The league was widely ridiculed for the decision, which was issued due to wording changes in the rulebook, but rather than simplify the language, they continued to tinker and update the official definition past the point of comedy. It has become exhausting satire of bureaucracy run amok. For example, the Miller event is covered by the “Player Going to the Ground” subsection of the rule (rule 8, section 1, article 3, item 1):
“A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. 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 until after his initial contact with 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.”
After a week of debate over the Miller non-catch, there has been little by the way of actual clarification. In order to move past this, the league will either have to simplify its rules or wait for another game-altering event to overshadow it. Unlike a touchdown catch, the answer as to which will happen first is pretty obvious.