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Inside Slant: Don't assume the 'process' rule will be fixed

2/23/2015

(For all Inside Slant posts, follow this link.)

So you want to change the Calvin Johnson rule? You want a secure football and two feet on the ground to qualify for possession? OK. Consider this future scenario.

Your quarterback throws a deep pass down the middle. His receiver jumps and grabs the ball with two hands. Both feet touch the ground as he falls. Absent the Calvin Johnson rule, it's a catch at that moment.

But wait. The ball comes loose and hits the ground. No defender has contacted the receiver. By definition, it's a fumble. The safety recovers. What would have been an incomplete pass is now a turnover.

It's easy to bang the table and call out the NFL's "process" requirement for possession when going to the ground. We all saw Johnson make what looked like a game-winning touchdown reception for the Detroit Lions in 2010. Most everyone watched as the rule mandated an overturn of Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant's catch in the 2014 playoffs. It's more difficult, however, to craft a rule that would effectively make those plays legal catches without creating new consequences or wider gray area for game officials.

The league's competition committee resumed a conversation last week about the process rule, which requires a player going to the ground in the act of making a catch to "maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground." It abandoned a similar discussion four years ago, unable to identify a favorable alternative, but the Bryant episode has spurred another good-faith effort. Even so, the same issues exist, and there is no guarantee a rule-change proposal will make it to ownership for a vote -- let alone pass.

A play similar to the one in this post was included in a league video distributed to coaches and eventually posted publicly. On that play, a defender intercepts the ball and loses it on the way to the ground. A receiver recovers it for what would be a gain of 40 yards absent the process rule. Speaking over the video, vice president of officiating Dean Blandino notes that if "we make this a catch, then in the middle of the field, when the receiver is not contacted, we're going to have more fumbles. We're going to have more catches and fumbles."

It's difficult to know how many plays would be affected by eliminating the process rule. There are no readily available statistics on plays where the receiver loses the ball, after touching the ground, as he's falling. We would like to think a change would only fix the problems, without creating new ones, but that hasn't always been the case in NFL history.

As we discussed last week, the NFL is aware that its rulebook has expanded into the longest and most complicated in American professional sports. It knows one of the top reasons too: movements sparked by individual plays that don't sit well with an influential group. As he spoke with a few reporters last month, NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent seemed to be cautioning against an overreaction to a high-profile but possibly infrequent instance.

"A lot of times, every coach, based on an experience they may have had, they're motivated to change the rule," Vincent said. "That's how the rulebook in some cases expands, because of one play. You figure as coaches turn over, there might be a play that cost them a game, you add another proposal, another tweak. ... This is where the wisdom comes in, when [the competition committee] starts talking about the history of how we got to here. Then someone says, if you adjust it this way, this is why we did this, to keep this part from happening. ...

"There [have been] two major plays."

Let's remember the purpose of this rule. As Blandino notes in the video: "We have to have a bright line in order to be consistent." The "bright line" is a clear and relatively easily seen guideline to determine possession in instances where receivers are falling to the ground. Without it, officials would have to judge whether the ball is secure and the feet are down before a ball might squirt loose in the process of falling.

In a vacuum, you could say that NFL officials should be able to see that sequence, either live or via a replay challenge. You could also accept the trade-off for some inconsistent judgment calls in exchange for elimination of a rule that occasionally runs counter to what the naked eye tells us.

Finally, you might question how frequently we would see additional fumbles. It's worth noting the example in the NFL video appears to have been culled from a 2010 game between the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins.

My educated guess: The league is motivated to operate outside the bubble that has complicated its rulebook. If anything, as Vincent said last month, there is an internal movement to simplify the rules. At the very least, "fixing" the Calvin Johnson/process rule will require a level of creativity that is not easily projected.