NFL catch rule confusion after Steelers-Patriots highlights persistent disconnect

PITTSBURGH — The “What’s a catch?” narrative does not stop.

Plays like the one involving Steelers tight end Jesse James are the reasons why. And the aftermath is yet another shot to a league already facing enough threats to maintaining its credibility.

It’s not that James should have gotten credit for scoring a touchdown in the final moments of Pittsburgh’s 27-24 loss to New England on Sunday night. As pointed out by NFL officiating chief Al Riveron in an online video released afterward, the “catch rule” states that a player must “survive the ground.”

“And by that,” Riveron continued, “we mean he must maintain control of the football.”

Under the letter of NFL law, James didn’t do it.

MORE: NFL explains James TD reversal

After the Steelers’ celebration — with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisbeger enshrouded by his offensive linemen before pointing his fingers to the sky upward in prayer — came the sobering reality of an instant replay review. The giant video screen at Heinz Field showed James had possession of the ball while crossing the goal line on what would have been a 10-yard score with 28 seconds remaining.

The problem was James’ inability to control the football afterward. His left elbow hit the ground, forcing the football loose. The ball then hit the ground before James re-gathered it into his chest. The touchdown was subsequently overturned by referee Tony Corrente under the direction of Riveron’s officiating department.

“Obviously no one touched him,” Roethlisberger said. “I thought that he crossed the plane before the ball hit the ground, but the rule is you have to possess it all the way through.”

This play wasn’t nearly as murky as the one involving the Dez Bryant non-catch three seasons ago in the Dallas-Green Bay playoff matchup. The fact that Roethlisberger and a number of Steelers players accepted (albeit grudgingly) the touchdown being taken off the scoreboard shows the league has made progress in its educational efforts toward explaining what constitutes a reception.

But the uproar following the Patriots-Steelers game shows how much more work remains.

I’ve been told by someone who would know that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell despises when officiating decisions overshadow game action. That’s what happened again Sunday in Pittsburgh with the James situation becoming a bigger story than another epic Tom Brady-led New England comeback and Roethlisberger’s end-zone interception in the game’s final seconds.

In a pleasant change from how league business is usually conducted nowadays, the NFL was proactive in trying to defuse the controversy by quickly releasing the Riveron explanation video.

The problem is public trust in officiating is at an all-time low based upon inconsistencies and mistakes now exposed through high-definition replays, which make it easy to forget officials are making judgments in real time without such a luxury.

The NFL’s broadcasting partners aren’t making life any easier for the league, either. The sarcasm exhibited by Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth during Sunday night’s telecast, and the “I don’t even know what a catch is anymore” refrain that comes from other announcers, as well, erodes public confidence in the officiating. Combined with Michaels’ not-so-veiled references to point spreads, it’s easy for some viewers to believe the fix is in.

There’s also the “Pereira effect.”

Mike Perreira was so good in his job as NFL officiating czar that the league should have done whatever it would have taken to keep him in that role. Instead, Pereira walked away in 2010 to become the rules analyst for FOX.

The NFL hasn’t found anyone who carries the same aura of credibility since … (Anyone remember Carl “The Truth” Johnson? Yeah, I thought so.) And with Pereira basically the Floyd Mayweather of making perfect calls in replay review, the reliability of officiating gets called into further doubt every time he points out the officials made the wrong decision.

As for the catch rule itself, the NFL solicited suggestions from coaches, players, executives and even media following the Bryant play in hopes of crafting more defined verbiage to temper future outcries and create clarity. The current wording is the best the league could come up with. The NFL also remains open to making future changes.

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This still won’t appease those wondering why a player like James who had control of the football when crossing the goal line isn’t treated like a runner who would have gotten the touchdown by doing the same. Nor those Steelers players and fans who believe the league and game officials have it in for their team based upon previous suspensions and what they considered dubious on-field penalties.

“Steeler nation vs Everyone and I do mean EVERYONE,” Steelers linebacker Vince Williams posted on his Twitter account.

Yet it’s the player at the center of Sunday’s brouhaha that best puts into perspective what transpired, and why officiating critics should take a bigger-picture view in these situations.

“We had opportunities to win the game,” James told reporters in front of his locker. “It wasn’t all over one play.

“But that’s football.”

That’s true. And it wasn’t a catch.

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