NFL's catch rules are broken -- but here's how they can be fixed

This play involving Tyler Eifert was originally signaled as a touchdown, but the call was later overturned. Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports

We've already hashed through the low hit on Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, so let's move straight to the rest of a nice little list of confusing and/or controversial officiating calls from the third Sunday of the 2015 season:

Oh Donte, you make too much sense

Former NFL receiver Donte Stallworth reacted just like the rest of us after the latest incarnation of the "Calvin Johnson rule," which occurred Sunday at MT&T Bank Stadium.

There seems no doubt: The NFL's offseason attempt to clarify the rule hasn't changed the perception that it can't define and legislate a catch. That seemingly simple task has proved vexing and has eluded nearly a decade of high-level league discussion. It'll require a much more aggressive fix, one that might necessitate acceptance of secondary consequences but could well prove to be a net improvement.

We'll get to that in a moment. First, let's review why Stallworth and everyone else got so worked up.

On fourth down with two minutes remaining in the second quarter, Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert leapt at the goal line and grabbed a pass from quarterback Andy Dalton. His right foot landed on the 1-yard line. As his left foot touched the ground, Eifert turned to reach the ball into the end zone. Ravens safety Brynden Trawick's tackle attempt took out Eifert's legs and sent him sprawling forward.

The ball crossed the plane of the end zone but it bounced away as Eifert landed on the ground.

Referee Walt Anderson's crew initially ruled the play a touchdown, but all scoring plays are subject to review. Anyone familiar with the 2010 Johnson ruling, or the 2014 Dez Bryant call or any of the lesser-known instances in between knew what was coming.

After review, Anderson announced: "The receiver is going to the ground still in the process of completing the catch, and even though the ball is extended beyond the goal line, it is knocked loose prior to him hitting the ground. The pass is incomplete."

This is the deal the NFL made when it chose not to adjust the rule materially either this spring or in 2011, after Johnson had an apparent game-winning touchdown wiped out by a similar ruling. NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino has argued that the rule provides a "bright line" for officials to make calls on possession during passing plays, one that is easy to see even if it they don't always pass the eye test. Without it, Blandino suggested, officials would face another layer of judgment and thus the potential for more inconsistency in decisions.

The league debated a change that would grant possession as soon as the receiver has two feet down, regardless of what comes afterward as he falls to the ground. That change would have allowed officials to call touchdowns for Johnson, Bryant and Eifert. But in other instances, it would ask them to judge whether the ball is secure and the feet are down before a ball might squirt loose in the process of falling. In the current arrangement, the decision is easy: ball comes out, pass is incomplete. Done deal.

In addition, Blandino argued in a video shown to team officials, a rule change would force officials to call fumbles on plays that had once been incomplete passes.

In the video, Blandino showed a play in which a defensive back appears to make an interception 40 yards downfield before losing the ball on the way to the ground. A receiver then falls on the ball. Under the current rule, the play would be incomplete. If it were changed, it would be an interception, a fumble and a 40-yard gain by the offense.

To avoid such instances, the NFL kept the essence of the rule intact this spring and instead launched a campaign to better explain it. Most notably, it dropped the term "football move" and added this sentence to the rulebook: "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."

Did Eifert demonstrate that he was "clearly a runner"? From a technical aspect, probably not. He did not take a single step forward after grabbing the ball. But that's almost beside the point. Why do we need such a complicated discussion to confirm what our eyes tell us should be a simple call?

Here's a suggestion: It's time to test the NFL's fears. Would a substantive rule change really cause the chaos the league thinks it would? How many plays would be negatively affected? And would they be outweighed by those that are corrected? There's only one way to find out.

Tuck Rule history is instructive

The NFL made a similar leap to what we're suggesting in 2013, when it eliminated the "Tuck Rule" and replaced it with common sense -- even if it meant more difficult decisions for officials. We saw one such example Sunday night in Detroit.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford lost a critical fourth-quarter fumble when referee Jeff Triplette's crew ruled that he was trying to tuck the ball away after starting his throwing motion. You can watch the replay a hundred times and still come away thinking it was a tough call. Stafford's right arm starts moving forward but is redirected when hit by the Broncos' Shaquil Barrett. At that point, the arm starts moving down and Stafford extends his left hand as if to grab the ball.

Was Stafford attempting to bring the ball back to his body? Or is that just what happened when he was hit? Triplette ruled the former, a debatable decision that is still preferable to the old rule.

In the 2001 AFC playoffs, you might recall, the New England Patriots maintained possession on a critical play because of the Tuck Rule. At the time, NFL rules stated that once a quarterback started his throwing motion, any loose ball that followed would be considered an incomplete pass -- even if he had clearly stopped his motion and was tucking it away.

The rule provided an easy "bright line" for officials, absolving them of the need to judge whether the quarterback was still throwing or if he had stopped the process when the ball was knocked loose. It also led to calls like the 2001 instance, which was correctly ruled an incomplete pass even when our eyes told us it was a fumble.

There have been some controversial judgments in the two-plus years since the change, but I think most observers would prefer errors in judgment over flaws in the structure of the rules themselves.

What made that ball bounce?

A fun little social media battle broke out Sunday afternoon when referee Carl Cheffers' crew reviewed a punt play in the second quarter of the Seattle Seahawks' 26-0 victory over the Chicago Bears.

Bears punter Patrick O'Donnell had been credited with a 32-yard punt, downed by the Bears' Sherrick McManis at the Seahawks' 13-yard line. But Bears coach John Fox threw his challenge flag, saying the ball had hit the Seahawks' Brock Coyle. In that case, the play should have been ruled a fumble recovery for McManis. The Bears would get possession inside the red zone.

When you watch the replay, you see the ball headed toward the back of Coyle's right leg. It then bounces in a perpendicular fashion toward the sideline as if something had redirected it.

Cheffers denied the challenge on review, stunning former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira. He tweeted that the ball "clearly" touched Coyle. After CBS rules analyst and former referee Mike Carey joined Blandino in tweeting that there was not enough visual evidence to overturn, Pereira doubled down:

Contact with Coyle is the likeliest cause of the ball's odd bounce, but there is also the chance -- no matter how slight -- that the football's oblong shape made it move unpredictably on its own. If anything, this play serves as a reminder of Blandino's high standard for replay reversals.

Generally speaking, Blandino said last year, "the call on the field is correct unless we have indisputable visual evidence to the contrary."

We can make the logical inference that the ball must have hit someone to bounce the way it did. But if it's not obvious on the replay, it's not getting changed under the current system.