The NFL has a serious problem on their hands: They can no longer define what actions constitute a completed pass.
The NFL Rules Committee has over-complicated the issue of what is a catch. There are different rules near the sideline than in the middle of the field. The following comes straight from the NFL Rulebook (the highlighted sections are emphasis of the NFL, not me):
ARTICLE 3. COMPLETED OR INTERCEPTED PASS
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:
- secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
- touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
- maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has clearly become a runner (see 3-2-7 Item 2).
Note: If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered a loss of possession. He must lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession.
If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any part of his body to the ground, it is not a catch.
Item 1. Player Going to the Ground. A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. 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 until after his initial contact with 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.
Item 2. Sideline Catches. If a player goes to the ground out-of-bounds (with or without contact by an opponent) in the process of making a catch at the sideline, he must maintain complete and continuous control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, or the pass is incomplete.
Item 3. End Zone Catches. The requirements for a catch in the end zone are the same as the requirements for a catch in the field of play.
In my opinion, there is no reason why these has to be a full typed-page on what a catch is. A catch is a simple thing: control of the football with body and appendage(s), and two feet or a shoulder/forearm/knee/elbow/head down in the field of play. If those requirements are met, it’s a catch. If they’re not, it’s not a catch. If the ball comes out after those requirements are met, it’s a fumble.
See? Simple. This way, there are three possible options, not dozens. Any teacher or mathematician knows that the more variables that are added, the more complicated the problem or task becomes. Refs are having to decipher a rulebook the size of a your average mass-market paperback on the fly in a heavily pressure-packed environment.
The NFL took it upon themselves to complicate and muddy the issue with a full page of subsections, contradictions, legalese, and contract law. Every kid in America learns what “catch” means at about the age of three. Why don’t we just stick with that?
Nothing positive can happen by expanding the definition and adding loopholes to that definition. It may have cost Atlanta a win (or at least a chance to tie) today. It cost Baltimore last week. I would say that the NFL will take notice when a playoff game is affected, but it was a determining factor in both the NFC Wild Card and Divisional Playoffs last year.
The answer to the question of “Is it a catch?” is starting to feel incredibly arbitrary, and NFL fans do not have a lot of patience for arbitrary answers.