INDIANAPOLIS -- The catch rule that continues to bedevil the NFL -- and which prompted Commissioner Roger Goodell to call for a rewrite -- is likely to be tweaked this offseason in an effort to finally clarify what a catch is.
Members of the Competition Committee, charged with changing the rule, are in the middle of four days of film review and discussions ahead of the NFL Scouting Combine. Their most likely recommendation, according to one person privy to their conversations, is to eliminate the "going to the ground" element of the rule, which requires players maintain control of the ball all the way through when they hit the ground. Eliminating that element would mean that Dez Bryant's famous non-catch would have been a catch, as would the Steelers' Jesse James' touchdown catch against the Patriotsthat was overturned on review this season. And perhaps most critically, it would go a long way toward satisfying the public's demand for a "know it when I see it" rule and would almost certainly reduce the number of catches that require instant replay review.
Making a catch more definitive is complicated, though, and it has been a source of frustration for years. One member of the committee, when asked a few weeks ago about the prospect of addressing the catch rule, replied simply: "Ugh." For example, changing the rule to require receivers get two feet down for a catch to count would open up the possibility of having to adjust rules that offer protection to defenseless receivers, an area the NFL does not want to weaken because it involves player safety.
The committee meets again next month to finalize the proposal. It would present any change to the rule at the annual league meeting at the end of March.
While the catch rule is likely to dominate the conversation, there are other rules changes being contemplated. Among them is changing the defensive pass interference penalty to 15 yards instead of being the spot of the foul. Critics of the penalty have long maintained that it is a potential game-changer -- even a season-changer -- and that the penalty far outweighs the crime. Owners are also considering a college-style targeting rule, which would call for ejection of a player deemed to have targeted an opponent for a head hit. That hit would have to be reviewed by replay for targeting to be established, and that is an element that has given the committee pause. The sentiment in favor of a targeting rule is that it would enhance the league's efforts to get head hits out of the game, and would put the discipline in the hands of officials on the field rather than in the form of fines or suspensions from the league office. Coaches, however, have long argued that if a player is trying to make a football play and crosses the line, he should not be ejected.
Ejection, though, could be emphasized as a remedy for fighting. Members of the Competition Committee have also discussed allowing for ejections for personal fouls, although it is unclear if that would have enough support for approval.
The committee is also concerned enough about the dip in scoring during the 2017 season that it has discussed making illegal contact a point of interest to limit the amount of hand fighting. That has been emphasized twice before -- most famously when former Colts president Bill Polian called for it after Colts receivers were mauled in the playoffs by Patriots defenders -- but committee members feel the hand fighting has increased again, after the success of the Seahawks' aggressive defenders.
There is one more rule change that is likely coming that will have particular resonance in Colts country. Owners are expected to change the rule that currently prohibits teams from hiring a new head coach before that coach's current team is finished in the playoffs. That rule has been proposed before, but has not garnered enough support to get the three-fourths approval from owners. However, after the Colts waited to officially hire Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels until after the Super Bowl -- only to have McDaniels back out the day before he was supposed to be introduced -- owners are likely to allow hires to be made official immediately.