A waste of time for NFL to 'educate' fans on catch rule

It's not us. It's you.

So goes the NFL's message to anyone who doesn't understand or accept its catch rule.

After spending what an official said this week was an "exorbitant amount of time" studying it this winter, the league concluded that the rule could not be improved and blamed public outcry on fans' poor comprehension of the rule's wording. The NFL believes this misunderstanding is an unavoidable consequence of the high-definition viewing era and says it can move forward by aggressively educating all interested parties.

What a waste of time. While I do believe it's possible to understand the rule, and while there are surely instances of capable observers simply refusing to understand, it's too late to educate now. Perception has hardened into immovable positions.

The NFL's task -- to convince you that, on occasion, its rules supersede what your eyes tell you -- is impossible. The league's best hope is to simply sap the energy of protesters rather than win them over.

A committee of coaches, players and officials convened by commissioner Roger Goodell briefly raised hopes for a more palatable solution. But the study seemed designed to support a predetermined outcome, which is a familiar accusation against the NFL. In January, long before the group made its report to the full competition committee, vice president of officiating Dean Blandino was already making it clear that there would be no new direction. NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent confirmed Blandino's prediction and proposed solution this week.

"We're at a good place," Vincent said, "and we have to keep applying the rule and keep educating our partners and the public and our fans."

Vincent joined competition committee co-chairman Rich McKay in suggesting that objections to the catch rule were out of proportion to its actual negative impact.

"You've got to remember that there are over 18,000 passing plays a year," McKay said. "That's how many that we get in a year. That's 5,000 more than in 1990. We do end up with, let's say it's a group of four plays, maybe it's a group of six, in which you look at it frame-by-frame and say, 'Maybe he got that wrong.' But in reality, the on-field official is officiating an awful lot of passes every game and getting them right."

McKay has his numbers right, even if the issue is more the design of the rule than the way it's officiated. The vast majority of pass plays are officiated correctly and without debate. But this is no different than a quarterback who throws one interception among 50 pass attempts. Ninety-eight percent of his throws produced no damage, but depending on the circumstances, that two percent can decide the game's outcome.

The NFL has failed to recognize the inherent problem of adjudicating an act as basic as a catch with such fine-tuned and subjective wording. Most notably, the rule requires officials to determine in real time when a receiver has taken enough steps to establish himself as a runner after taking initial possession of the ball.

The issue reached a peak in January, when Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said: "I don't know what the hell a catch is anymore."

Think about that for a moment. McCarthy is entering his 30th year as a football coach. Relative to the population, he is a football expert. Sure, his comment was made out of frustration after an overtime playoff loss, but that doesn't mean it misrepresented his views.

Nonetheless, the NFL is ramping up its pre-existing efforts to teach people about the rule. It has been distributing Blandino-narrated videos via social media for months, and Blandino is scheduled to give multiple presentations next week at the NFL owners meeting in Boca Raton, Florida.

Based on Vincent's comments on a Thursday conference call, the league also appears to have developed a new public mantra to describe what constitutes a catch. (Don't expect to hear about "football moves" or "becoming a runner" anymore.)

Vincent referred several times to a "three-step process," saying: "Without a commentator doing their own abbreviation of the rule, the rule states: possession, two feet down, time of possession."

The obvious response is to question why the third step is necessary. Why isn't it a catch when a player establishes possession and has two feet down in bounds?

The league provides two arguments here. First, without the time-of-possession requirement, what are currently incomplete passes could become fumbles. Second, receivers who accomplish the first two requirements would lose their protection as defenseless players and thus be subject to helmet-to-helmet hits before they have a chance to brace for them.

Those are quite reasonable points. But the NFL has missed an opportunity to innovate more deeply here. Did it consider outlawing all helmet-to-helmet hits, not just against players who are considered defenseless? What about a proposed solution in the Canadian Football League, which would place one official in the press box to watch a live HD feed and advise the referee on any calls that the press box might have a better view on?

Instead, the NFL is telling you that any concern is the result of your own confusion and that it's time to go to school. I can't imagine many people want to hear that. The true message is this: There will be some pass plays every season that don't make sense. Get used to it and move on, I guess.