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Seven Takeaways from Dez Bryant's Catch that Wasn't: Not What You'd Expect to Hear from a Cowboys Fan

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If you have paid any attention to the football world since the Cowboys played the Packers on January 11th, you know that in that game, Dez Bryant got more credit for grabbing headlines than he did for grabbing footballs.

Late in the game, on a critical fourth down play, Dez Bryant performed his own version of the Lambeau Leap to catch a pass from Tony Romo.  He grabbed the ball in mid-air.  So far, so good for Cowboys fans.  Then, he began to descend.  During his landing, he took three steps before his body hit the ground.  That’s when the trouble started.  The ball jiggled loose as he reached for the goal line with the ball touching the ground.  He eventually recovered the ball while lying in the end zone, but it was too late.  The pass was ruled incomplete, and Green Bay won the game.

At the heart of the controversy is what’s commonly called the “Calvin Johnson (different receiver, same controversy four seasons earlier) rule.” The NFL refers to it as Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3 of the Official NFL Playing Rules.  It basically states that if a player catches a pass while falling to the ground, he must maintain control of the ball while going to the ground.  If the ball jiggles loose and touches the ground, the NFL rules state that the receiver didn’t catch the pass.

As a Cowboys fan, I’ve listened to plenty of opinions about the play.  I’ve read tweets about it, most objecting to the call.  I’ve watched the replay of it several times.  I’ve heard people complain that it was a bad call, and I’ve heard people say it was a good call and a bad rule.

Objectively, I believe I have a clear picture of the controversy, and even as a Cowboys fan, I believe I have an unbiased view.  My conclusion is as follows:  The officials called the play correctly according to the rules.  The problem is that the rule that governs a player catching a pass while falling to the ground requires the player to be able “to perform any act common to the game” after hitting the ground and before the ball jiggles loose while touching the ground.  I confused myself just writing that last sentence.  It shouldn’t be so difficult to explain.  It shouldn’t be so difficult for a receiver who caught a ball to prove that he caught a ball.  This rule seems to be the product of a group of people in a room over-thinking what it means to catch a pass.  I dare say, the memorable Butch Johnson catch way back in Super Bowl XII would be ruled incomplete if it took place today.  For decades, the NFL ruled with simplicity concerning how to define a catch.  Then, well into the 2000s, it was decided that the old rules weren’t sufficient and needed to be changed.  Dez Bryant was performing an “act common to the game” in reaching for the goal line.  He did it earlier than he should have according to the rules.  Therefore, an outstanding athletic play made by one of the NFL’s top wide receivers will forever be memorable because it wasn’t a catch, rather that being a great play.

After all that, here are my seven takeaways from “Dez Bryant’s Catch that Wasn’t”:

1.   Fans complain about the ruling, but not the rule.

2.   Fans who do complain about the rule should realize that the rule has been around for a good handful of years already.

3.   A receiver must know the rules and adjust accordingly.  I commend him for his effort, but it would have been outstanding for Dez Bryant to clutch the ball as if the game depended on it.  It did.  Going to the ground at the one yard line would have made a Cowboys touchdown about as certain as ice cycles on the frozen tundra.  The painful truth is that his effort did not win the game.  His lack of awareness of the rules lost a golden opportunity to take the lead late in the game.

4.   A Wide Receivers Coach (Derek Dooley) must ensure his receivers know the rules by which their play is governed.  Likewise, a Head Coach (Jason Garrett) must ensure his position coaches are teaching the rules to the players.  This is something within their direct control.  After the Calvin Johnson “catch-no-catch” more than four years earlier, there is no reason to be surprised by the ruling on the Dez Bryant play.  Nor is there any excuse for not knowing the rule.

5.   The NFL’s Competition Committee is responsible for reviewing rules and making necessary changes.  It continues to allow these rules to be in place.  We, the people, continue to see a catch.  The NFL continues to see no catch.  One of the members of the Competition Committee is none other than Stephen Jones, Executive Vice President, among other things, of the…Dallas Cowboys!  Oh, the horrific and painful irony!

6.   The article in the rules mentioned above also includes an item governing “Sideline Catches.”  This one takes the cake.  The above requirements also apply to sideline catches, even though the player is out of bounds.  We can correctly conclude according to this rule, that the validity of what happens on the filed of play is determined by what happens outside the boundary of the field of play.  Let me restate that.  A player who catches (in the truest sense of the word) a football on the field of play can go out of bounds, subsequently doing something that nullifies what he did on the field.  You can see that the rule is what’s really out of bounds.

7.   The NFL continues to allow a rule to be in place that causes every logical thinking person scratch his head in disbelief.

Everyone who has seen the Dez Bryant play or the Calvin Johnson play has seen a wide receiver leap into the air and make an outstanding catch.  Because of the complicated rule, the NFL sees an incompletion.  I predict that, as in the case of the “tuck rule,” this rule will be changed.  Let’s hope it is before it affects the outcome of another game.

Dez Bryant's Catch that Wasn't
Credit: dallascowboys.com
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