NFL coaches join fans in angst over 'nefarious' catch rule

Education imperative with catch rule (1:36)

Bill Polian explains why the controversial catch rule was not discussed as one of the 19 proposals sent by teams and NFL Competition Committee at the NFL Annual Meeting. (1:36)

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Whenever an NFL catch is disputed, Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien lets his mind float back 35 years. Suddenly, he's in the yard behind his childhood home.

"If it was a catch in my backyard when I was 9 years old in Andover, Massachusetts," O'Brien said, "then it's a catch. Right? If me and my buddies are there and we caught the ball, and this guy says, 'What do you think? Yeah, he caught it. It didn't hit the ground.' [Then] it's a catch, right? I think we make it too complicated now. That's just my opinion."

Count O'Brien among the NFL coaches who still don't know what to do with the catch rule. Though league executives consider the issue mostly a matter of fan confusion, interviews here with a cross-section of coaches suggested those concerns go deeper.

Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh used the words "nebulous," "nefarious" and "mysterious" to describe it. (Really. I was there.)

Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio acknowledged that "it's become more complicated than it needs to be" and insisted that Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant should have been credited with a catch in a still-disputed ruling during the 2014 divisional playoffs.

The Jacksonville Jaguars' Gus Bradley said, "I'm sure there is confusion," and Harbaugh -- man, was he on a roll -- said the league plunders its own position by refusing to quantify how long a receiver must hold on to the ball to make the catch legal.

"[For] coaches and players," Harbaugh said, "it's just as crazy as it is for the fans."

In an effort to explain the rule publicly, the NFL has pivoted to a "three-step process" that includes possession, two feet on the ground and a subjective mandate for adequate time of possession. Speaking at the AFC coaches breakfast, Harbaugh shredded the league for the final requirement and said it should define "time of possession" as "three steps."

"The confusion is with replay," Harbaugh said. "The problem is that ... [the NFL] doesn't want to build rules that address the fact that the game is being watched in replay and being officiated in replay already [by fans].

"Technology is great. And catch/no catch is in replay. It's being officiated on the field and it's being officiated in replay. So if ... you defined the time element as a third step, everybody would understand that -- players, coaches, most importantly, fans. It would go to replay and it would be black and white. Catch? No catch? Everybody would understand it. This nebulous, nefarious, mysterious time element that they've built into this thing is driving everyone crazy."

Based on studies he's viewed, Harbaugh said it has been five years since the NFL had a pass play that couldn't be clearly adjudicated by the "three-step" time element. He said that vice president of officiating Dean Blandino "does a great job of officiating the rule" subjectively, "but the problem is the fans don't understand what he's looking at because of the mysterious time element that's in the equation."

From my perspective, the issue isn't Harbaugh's particular objection but the larger picture of a league that can't get itself on the same page, let alone do that for a viewing public whose frustration seems to grow at every turn. While it's certainly possible to understand almost every ruling through careful study and an open mind, the perception of mass confusion seems impenetrable.

The coaches I spoke with all want a level of clarity with which to coach their players. At this point, their demand is simple but at times impossible: Players must never release the ball for any reason or under any circumstance unless they are handing the ball to an official after the play.

"Catch it, secure it and don't let there be any doubt," Del Rio said. "That's the easiest way to handle the catch rule."

"Hold on to the ball," San Diego Chargers coach Mike McCoy said.

"When you catch the football," Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan said, "you have to survive the ground. That's pretty much what the rule is, without it necessarily being worded that way."

Blandino spent nearly 40 minutes this week discussing the catch rule and other officiating points with reporters here at the owners meetings. Ultimately, even he couldn't deny that the rule will continue producing at least some counterintuitive results.

"When you get to the consistency of the rule and how it allows our officials to be more consistent," he said, "we are going to ultimately have plays where it looks like a catch but isn't, by rule."

And that's what coaches here are not yet ready to accept. But they will. They have no choice. Nothing is changing, at least not in 2016. So it goes.