Why can't we have a Calvin Johnson rule?

March, 14, 2011
3/14/11
6:05
PM ET
So Bob Glauber of Newsday has reported, and NFL.com has now confirmed, there will be no changes this offseason to the controversial rule that overturned Detroit Lions' receiver Calvin Johnson's apparent touchdown in Week 1 of the 2010 season.

My reaction: Thhhhhhppppppppppppppppppppppppptttttttttttttttttttt.

We're going with a Bill the Cat reference because this whole issue has become a cartoon. There were any number of possibilities for improving the rule, and I'm eager to hear the NFL competition committee's counter-reasoning next week at the annual league meetings.

I'm guessing fans of both the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears have tried to put the play out of their minds altogether. For the Lions, it was a painful symbol of just how wrenching the first 12 games of their season turned out to be. For the Bears, it's a reminder of how thin the difference was between winning the NFC North and staying home for the playoffs.

Regardless, there has been some speculation the NFL would address the rule that ultimately prevailed. But according to Glauber, the competition committee has recommended it remain intact because proposed changes would give it more gray area rather than less.

The rule in question states:

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 after he touches 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.

As we discussed in a subsequent Dirty Laundry post, the rule creates two different rules for possession in the end zone. Equalizing the possession standard is one way to address the problem.

A simpler suggestion came recently from Fox analyst Mike Pereira, the league's former vice president of officiating. In an interview with Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, Pereira suggested a one-word adjustment to the rule.

"[T]he one thing I would take out is 'after,'" Pereira said, "because the rule states you have to hold onto the ball after you hit the ground. Maybe you say you have to hold onto the ball when you hit the ground."

Our eyes told us the play was a touchdown. The rule told us otherwise. Pereira's suggestion would have merged the two. Johnson caught the ball and maintained control as his feet touched the ground.

What if, as Pereira suggested, the rule called for a player to "maintain control of the ball when he touches the ground?" Would that be any more difficult to officiate? It's possible, but it wouldn't be any more difficult than determining if a player has possession and two feet down before falling out of bounds, or if a player has fumbled before his knee touches the ground. It's reasonable to expect NFL officials to make those types of calls routinely, and it would prevent a cardinal sin of officiating -- ignoring the smell test in adherence of a rule that lacks foresight.

I'm willing to reconsider my position upon hearing from the competition committee, which is chaired by Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay. I look forward to hearing what McKay says.

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