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A new twist: Even NFL referees don't know what a catch is

No one who watches NFL games knows what a catch is anymore, or so goes the cool thing to say these days. Here's the unfortunate truth: That includes the referees.

Roughly halfway through the 2015 season, there have been more challenges to a pass completion ruling than any other play, according to records the NFL keeps on its statistical website. More than half have been overturned, the highest success rate among the categories with at least two challenges and a big jump from last season (30.56 percent).

The details are in the chart. But in short, the NFL's replay command center -- headed on game days by vice president of officiating Dean Blandino -- has been left to enforce a rule that ostensibly was clarified in the offseason. The new wording, which requires a receiver to become "a runner" in order to demonstrate possession, has led to weekly confusion and too often has required a review.

We've seen replay requested to decide plays involving Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert, Atlanta Falcons tailback Devonta Freeman, Detroit Lions wide receiver Golden Tate and others. The latest: Dallas Cowboys tailback Darren McFadden's first-quarter fumble -- or was it an incomplete pass? -- against the Seattle Seahawks.

On the play, McFadden grabbed a short throw from quarterback Matt Cassel and turned upfield. The ball came loose and was recovered by Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril.

Referee Carl Cheffers ruled the play a catch and fumble, but all turnovers are reviewed. When you slow down the play, you see that the ball settled into McFadden's right hand and arm. He took one step and lost control as he tried to tuck the ball under his left arm. So even though McFadden wasn't going to the ground, he never qualified as a runner. He did not take multiple steps in possession of the ball, and he was never -- in the eyes of the rulebook, at least -- "capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent."

Cheffers announced the reversal, explaining that McFadden did not complete the process of the catch. Rather than a fumble, the play was called an incomplete pass.

As I've written before, this ruling makes sense in the deep context of the rulebook and after watching the play frame-by-frame. But no one can see a play so clinically in live action. When more than half of these challenges have been reversed by replay, it's fair to wonder if the NFL has saddled its officials with a rule that is clear on paper but far too difficult to enforce in practice.

The new wording hasn't helped and, if anything, has led to further confusion. The high percentage of call reversals is especially notable, given a standard that requires the play to be "clear and obvious" before any call is overturned. You saw that later in the Seahawks-Cowboys game, when Blandino did not reverse a touchdown by Seahawks tight end Luke Willson because only one of several available replays showed that he was down short of the goal line.

That standard is in place to ensure that games primarily are officiated on the field, not by a remote command center. But the NFL is moving in that direction to enforce its definition of a catch. That's a sub-optimal development, to say the least.

A few quick-hitters from elsewhere in Week 8:

  • I explained in this post why Cheffers didn't penalize the Seahawks for calling consecutive timeouts just before halftime. In essence, it's only a penalty when the purpose is to freeze a kicker. Cheffers should have simply ignored the request. His crew erred when it stopped the play-clock to inform the Seahawks they could not have another timeout.

  • A delayed facemask penalty against New York Giants punter Brad Wing, one that set up the New Orleans Saints' game-winning field goal, was the kind of sequence that has prompted many officiating observers to wonder if referees are using scoreboard replays and/or getting clandestine help through their wireless headsets. Referee Craig Wrolstad initially announced there was no penalty, but after a few moments announced the correction. Referees can receive remote help on spotting the ball and on identifying jersey numbers, but it is against NFL protocol for any outside entity to influence call-making itself.

  • Saints coach Sean Payton made clear he didn't like a defensive holding penalty on cornerback Delvin Breaux that negated a fourth-quarter fumble recovery. "We can't have something like that, that doesn't happen, being called," he said. Breaux made allowable contact on Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. at the line of scrimmage, but Beckham's shoulders arched and his jersey twisted. Did Breaux grab or hold? It's unclear, but defensive holding remains a point of emphasis and will be called if in doubt. It was called four times in that game and has been called 138 times league-wide through Week 7. That's slightly off the 2014 pace of 161 in a similar time period, but still much higher than the first seven weeks of 2013 (88), before it was a point of emphasis.