Here is the NFL’s rule defining a completed forward pass (let’s call if the “Common Act Rule”):
“A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. 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 long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.”
And here is the NFL’s notorious “Process Rule” – sometimes called the Calvin Johnson Rule, perhaps henceforth to be called the Dez Bryant Rule after the Dallas/Green Bay game:
“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 throughout the process of contacting 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.”
Both rules are a part of Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3 of the Official NFL Playing Rules.
The Common Act Rule is the definition of a completed forward pass: a completed pass requires the receiver not just to catch the ball but to do two additional things: (i) get both feet (or another body part) down on the ground, and (ii) maintain control of the ball long enough to be able to do certain specified things with it. The Process Rule, on the other hand, was intended to simplify the job of the officials by determining the standard for a completed pass in the special case where the receiver “goes to the ground in the act of catching (the) pass” – when that happens, he must “maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground.”
One problem with the Process Rule is that it is not clear whether it is a clarification of the Common Act Rule or a completely different rule that stands on its own in the occasional situations involving a player going to the ground. Neither the referee in the Dallas/Green Bay game nor the NFL in its post mortem explanation gave us a clear answer on that one. It appeared that the official who initially called the play a touchdown was treating the pass as a completed pass under the Common Act Rule and did not believe the Process Rule even came into play. But the referee, in reversing the other official’s call, gave an explanation that indicated that the Process Rule did apply, but he invoked terms and concepts found only in the Common Act Rule, which left many of us confused.
It is easy to see why even the officials (and the NFL rules gurus, in their later explanations) were confused. The wording of the Process Rule cries out for clarification – lacking which, the officials were forced to make a bunch of judgment calls. Consider these ambiguities in the Process Rule: (i) what is the meaning of “goes to the ground?” (leaves his feet? begins to fall to the ground? contacts the ground with some body part other than a foot?); (ii) what is “the act of catching the pass?” (establishing control for an instant? establishing control for some period of time or through some series of events? meeting the definition of a completed pass under the Common Act Rule?); and (iii) what is “the process of contacting the ground?” (the point where his body comes to a full stop?) After watching the likes of Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Barry Sanders, etc., how could anyone know that a player was going to the ground, or in the process of contacting the ground, short of his actually being on the ground? Not as simple as it sounds.
Here is how a Cowboys fan – or a lawyer – might apply the two rules to Tony Romo’s pass to Dez Bryant: (1) Bryant caught the pass; and then (2) Bryant went to the ground. That’s it. The Process Rule should not even apply to the play, because Bryant caught the pass before he went to the ground. By the time any of his body-parts hit the ground (other than his feet), he was no longer in “the act of catching the pass,” he had already caught the pass. The catch was made the instant Bryant grasped the ball with both hands, a contention amply supported by his having had sufficient control of the ball to be able to switch to a one-handed grip and then stretch that one hand toward the goal line. The act of stretching his arm toward the goal line was an “act common to the game” – it was an advancing of the ball, showing he had controlled the ball well enough to “advance with it,” as specified in the Common Act Rule. He did not start “the process of contacting the ground” until his prone body struck the turf, which was well after he had switched to the one-hand grip and reached for the goal line. Under the Process Rule, there was no reason even to consider whether Bryant maintained control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground – the catching of the pass had already been accomplished.
Yes, others could argue that the Process Rule supplements the Common Act Rule rather than superceding it, that it adds an additional requirement to the basic definition of a completed pass. For example, you could argue that “catching the pass,” as that term is used in the Process Rule, means both completing the pass under the Common Act Rule AND hanging on to the ball until the receiver has died, or has at least stopped moving forward. Indeed, from the explanations offered by the referee and later by the NFL, it appears that they thought both the Common Act rule and the Process Rule applied – or at least, that they were confused. But I would point out that the Process Rule appears to stand alone, that there is nothing in the text to indicate that it is supposed to supplement the Common Act Rule rather than to replace it in the case of the receiver going to the ground, that it refers only to “catching a pass” and not to “completing a pass” or accomplishing the other steps described in the Common Act Rule, and that it never defines “catching a pass” at all. Nor does it define “goes to the ground” or “the process of contacting the ground.” In short, the Process Rule is not very clear.
If the point is that the pass needs to be both a completed pass under the Common Act Rule and a pass that also satisfies the requirements of the Process Rule, the league ought to rewrite the rules to say so – and while they are at it, they might also define all of that ambiguous terminology. That would leave us with a very wordy and burdensome standard, but at least a clear one. But of course that is what happens when you try to write rules for everything that could ever possibly happen to anyone anywhere anytime, instead of just writing a basic, simple rule and hiring officials whom you trust to exercise good judgment – for example: “a forward pass shall be considered completed when, in the judgment of the officials, the receiver has established control of the ball.” The NFL could write a thousand definitions of control and still fail to anticipate every situation – or instead they could just consider the immortal words of Supreme Court Justice Stewart, in confessing his inability to define hard-core pornography: “but I know it when I see it.”