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Evaluating potential NFL rule changes

Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) comes down in the end zone with the ball
Hey, Calvin Johnson: You have to hang on to the ball.
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Mike Pereira

Mike Pereira was the NFL's Vice President of Officiating from 2004-09, having spent the five seasons previous to that as the league's Director of Officiating. He also served as an NFL game official when he acted as a side judge for two seasons (1997-98). Follow him on Twitter.

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Hey, Calvin Johnson — guess what? It is still not a touchdown.

Rich McKay, president of the Atlanta Falcons and chairman of the NFL’s Competition Committee, confirmed Wednesday that no significant changes to the rule regarding complete or incomplete catches have been made that would have taken a play that most everyone thought was a touchdown and made it exactly that.

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The "is-it-a-catch?" controversy occurred in the 2010 season opener between Johnson’s Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears, when the Lions receiver made what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown reception with less than a minute remaining in regulation. The reception was later ruled incomplete because the ball touched the ground while still in Johnson’s hand as he attempted to leap up and celebrate.

McKay said Wednesday that the rewritten rule — which reintroduces the statement "controlling the ball long enough to perform a football act" — still has to "put responsibility on the receiver to hold on to the ball."

Think that is a bit confusing? McKay went on to say that although the receiver has to maintain control long enough to perform a football act, “he doesn’t have to perform a football act.”

McKay explained that there are three elements to completing a catch:

1. Control the ball.
2. Maintaining control when you touch the ground with both feet or another body part.
3. Controlling the ball long enough to perform a football act after completing steps one and two.

Long story short — it is still a mess. And guess what, folks? It will still be a mess for a long time.

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This is a very tough fix. I certainly don’t have an answer.

I agree with McKay when he said that there is an inherent conflict between the way the rule is interpreted and instant replay. The conflict is slow motion.

When you have to analyze possession and whether a receiver has maintained control “long enough” to complete the catch, real time would say no. But in slow motion replay, the answer would be yes.

Great minds likely spent hours and maybe days trying to figure this out and couldn’t. It doesn’t surprise me.

Instant replay has really had a negative effect in this area of the game.

Here is my last suggestion; make catch/no catch only reviewable at the sideline or endline. Focus on only the feet or another body part. If the receiver gets two feet down, it is a catch. Forget the element of time and whether he maintained control long enough. These are judgment calls anyway.

Leave it in the hands of the officials and forget replay.

***

Speaking of replay ...

There is a proposal that will be voted on during the March 20-22 NFL owners meetings that would eliminate the third challenge for a coach who wins his first two challenges.

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In exchange, coaches will not have to use a challenge any time a touchdown, field goal or safety is ruled. The replay assistant will be able to initiate a review if necessary just as he does inside of two minutes of each half.

Not sure I like this.

This focuses on scoring plays only. I am OK with that because scoring plays are the most significant focus in the reply system with change-of-possession plays running a close second.

I am not OK with the fact that this only applies to a ruling of a score and not if a runner is ruled down short of the goal line or if a field goal is ruled no good. The rationale for this is when a score is ruled, the clock stops and there is no action until the try or the kickoff.

There are a couple of things that I don’t like about this, and overall I think this proposed rule change will extend the length of the game.

I don’t like the fact that the only time the replay assistant will get involved outside of two minutes is if a score is ruled.

What if a runner is ruled down short of the goal line with three minutes to go in the game and the coach is out of challenges or timeouts? Sorry. No review, even if video shows conclusively that the ball had broken the plane. If the official had ruled touchdown, the replay assistant could initiate a review, but since the official ruled the runner short, nothing can be done.

It is a scoring play and it should be reviewed. Who cares if you stop the clock outside of two minutes? You would stop the clock inside of two minutes.

This is one way that rulings in replay are not good in my mind.

If a coach is out of challenges or timeouts, officials are going to officiate to the replay system. If it is close they will and should rule touchdown. That way it can be reviewed.

We have been through this before when the ruling of fumble was reviewable but the ruling of down by contact wasn’t. If it was close, officials were told to rule fumble and many times went against their instincts. It made some appear indecisive.

I am also concerned that this new rule will lead to more reviews and more delays. The replay assistant is going to stop the game anytime he is uncertain. Replays don’t come up immediately after a score as the networks have a job to do and must present player, coach and fan reaction.

The game is either going to get stopped or the umpire is going to stand over the ball for an extended period of time not letting the scoring team attempt the try. This will give the television networks more time to show some replays.

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The simple solution for this is to let the replay assistant review this all the way up to the kickoff after the try. Everyone has plenty of time, including the networks. In most cases the networks will come up with the shot that confirms the score and the stoppage would then be avoided.

McKay said the competition committee discussed this but, “at the end of the day you have to keep the standard to the idea that the review stops at the next legal snap.”

The try is hardly a play that applies here. The clock does not run during a try. It is a dead play. If you find out after the try that a touchdown ruling should have been reversed you have compounded the problem by letting an extra point count that never should have been allowed in the first place.

I vote against this replay proposal.

***

The competition committee is out to totally revamp kickoffs.

This is all about player safety and I vote for this. I’m not sure this will pass. Special team coordinators will be up in arms about this. Kickoffs would be from the 35-yard line. Touchbacks would come out to the 25-yard line.

Kicking team members could only get a 5-yard running start as they would have to line up outside of their 30-yard line. All wedge blocks will be illegal even if just by two players.

This will result in fewer returns and fewer injuries. A reduction of injuries is always a good thing.

I like everything about this change, but it is a radical departure from the way the committee has looked at kickoffs in the past.

 

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It wasn’t long ago that the rule changed moving the kickers’ line back to the 30 and the NFL went to “K” balls that weren’t doctored and prepared by the kickers. This was done to get more returns back in the game because the percentage of touchbacks had gotten too high. The feeling was that the kickoff return was one of the most exciting plays in the game.

The focus was quite different then. Injuries take precedent now.

It’s interesting how the NHL has announced it is looking into “accidental concussions” and may try to slow the game down a bit. Same thing should apply on kickoffs. Slow it down by not giving a kicking team member a full-fledged running start.

This should pass, as owners rarely vote against anything that promotes player safety.

***

The other rule proposal discussed was the standardization of defenseless players and their protections. This is an automatic. There will also be a foul for a player launching and contacting an opponent anywhere with his helmet.

There appears to be a total of only five changes that will go to a vote in New Orleans, three of which appear to be very simple.

This will be the fewest number of proposed changes in the last 10 years.

I wonder why? Might it be that I am no longer a part of the process?

I always wanted to tweak the rules, and maybe I went a little too far once in a while. I do know that if I would have been there, I would have continued my fight to get the “Tuck Rule” changed, among others.

I am sure the competition committee is happy that I have moved on.

Tagged: Lions, Calvin Johnson

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