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What's a catch in today's NFL? Even the Bills' receivers aren't sure

Grab a pair of aspirin and, if you’re of age, maybe a stiff drink.

We’re about to get into some serious legalese.

The question “what’s a catch” is routinely answered without a problem in touch-football games across the country, but the nation’s No. 1 professional sports league makes it harder than advanced calculus.

The struggle to come up with a streamlined answer to that question is better understood when actually digesting what the official NFL rulebook defines as a catch.

That definition, from Rule, Section 1, Article 3 reads:

"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 after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has clearly become a runner (see 3-2-7 Item 2).

Note: If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered a loss of possession. He must lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession.

If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body to the ground, it is not a catch."

What if the player goes to the ground before he has “clearly become a runner,” you ask? Here’s what the NFL says about that: “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 regain controls, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.”

Ok, so if the ball touches the ground, that’s incomplete … right?

Not exactly.

More from the rulebook: “If the ball touches the ground after the player secures control of it, it is a catch, provided that the player continues to maintain control.”

Got all that?

Don’t feel bad if you don’t. Even the five players employed by the Buffalo Bills specifically to catch the football aren’t entirely sure what defines it.

The topic is particularly apropos this week after Buffalo’s Week 12 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. With just over 2 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Bills receiver Chris Hogan appeared to make a catch at the Bills’ 31-yard line that would have given them a first down. He took four steps with the ball before being tackled. Officials, however, ruled the play incomplete.

Inspired by that play, The Buffalo News asked each of the team’s five wide receivers, as well as coach Rex Ryan, what they think a catch is. Here are their replies.

Hogan: “I have no idea.”

BN: That’s a pretty big problem for your job, right?

Hogan: “Tell me about it, man. Every single year, we're making a big deal about what's a catch and what's not a catch. Ever since we played football in little league, you catch the ball. You take a couple steps with it, that's what it is now, whatever, bring it in, that's a catch.

But now, it's did he take enough steps? Did he move up field? Did he make an athletic move? I think they're making it more complicated than it needs to be, and it's showing in the games. It's really determining outcomes of games, which is not good.

My play for instance, was it a catch? Yeah. But did I lose the ball when I hit the ground? Yes. So I have to hold onto it. That's up to me. … I know the refs have a tough job, but I wish we would jut simplify it. If you catch it, you catch it, you know?”

Marcus Easley: “In the fourth quarter, Chris Hogan’s play, that’s a catch.”

BN: Except that it wasn’t. Why not?

Easley: “I guess you need to maintain control of the ball going to the ground, but I was also the under the impression, that if you catch the ball and you make an athletic move -- you know, take three or four steps -- to me, that's a catch. When he hit the ground, the ball got loose. We've just got to leave no doubt. When we get two hands on it, just maintain possession, regardless of if we get hit, go to the ground, whatever the case may be, so we don't have to put it in the ref's hands.”

Marcus Thigpen: “I think the rule has changed. To me, it's taking two steps. There's been a lot of controversy. If you catch the ball, you have clear possession and you take two steps, I think that's a catch.”

BN: Why do you think the best sports league in the country has such a hard time defining it?

Thigpen: “I’ve got no answer for that. We all need to come to some common ground. There should be a meeting with players and the officials. I think that would clear up a lot.”

Robert Woods: “A catch is … whatever moves the chains, I guess.”

BN: Is that a tough situation to be in, not really knowing?

Woods: “It is tough, but it’s part of the game. There are calls that are going to be right, and calls that are going to be part of the game. You’ve got to avoid those situations.”

Sammy Watkins: “Two, three steps, I think. Don’t let the ground break the ball up. Don’t bobble it. Catch it and secure it.

“You can't blame the refs, they're dealing with so many calls and looks. They're unsure. Everybody's unsure. ... They're making the job so hard for the refs with all these rules and regulations. We should just line up and play.”

Four of the five Bills’ receivers used the words “I think” or “I guess” in describing what a catch is. No wonder the NFL has such a problem.

Bills coach Rex Ryan was similarly stumped.

“Hard to explain,” he said. “You've got to make football moves, you've got to survive the ground. I mean, we all know what a catch is. Literally there's so much that goes into it now. You've got to make sure you've got two feet inbounds, or knee, elbow, something like that. And you've got to survive the ground.”

By that, the Bills’ coach means not allowing the ball to move when falling to the ground, as is what happened with Hogan.

“If you don't survive the ground, sometimes they'll look at it as it's a non-catch,” Ryan said. “What used to be a catch years ago is not a catch anymore. … I don't know what you do. Hold on to it. Don't give the ball to anybody. And then finally, I guess, you can give it to the official.”

In an attempt to get clarification, Thigpen said the Bills at times will send clips to the league office. But those are only good as references.

Woods was asked if he were the commission, how the rule should be written going forward.

“If you get two feet down and you’re looking to make a move, I think it’s quite clear that’s a catch,” he said.

Given the amount of scrutiny such plays have received this season in the NFL, it seems inevitable that the rule will be revisited in the offseason. Speaking at the NFL owners meetings this week in Dallas, Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league will form a special committee made up of current and former general managers, former players and former officials to make proposals to the NFL’s competition committee on how the catch rule can be simplified.

“We want clarity to that,” Goodell said. “We want to find a better solution, if it’s out there.”

To that, football fans everywhere are surely nodding in agreement.

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