The NFL catch rule has issues, but Steelers' 'survive the ground' call was right

Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports

There have been way too many controversial reversals of touchdowns in the NFL this season.

What happened Sunday night at Heinz Field wasn't one of them.

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James absolutely, positively did not catch the game-winning touchdown against the New England Patriots. The catch rule, as we all know and hate it, declares clearly that a player going to the ground while making a catch must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of going to the ground.

When you watch the play, you see James diving for the ball. As he lunged across the goal line, the ball fell to the ground. Before James could gain possession, Patriots defensive back Duron Harmon dove on his back to render him down and the play over.

Very clearly and simply, James did not maintain control of the ball throughout the process. The play was not much different from the infamous ruling involving Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant in the 2014 playoffs.

Here's how it appears in the NFL rulebook:

"A player who goes to the ground in the process of attempting to secure possession of a loose ball (with or without contact by an opponent) must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, there is no possession.

"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."

As the NFL has explained it, the catch rule provides officials a "bright line" for adjudicating possession, and thus a catch. The way the rule is written, James did not have possession even though the ball crossed the plane with his hands securely around it. As NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron said Sunday night in a later narration of the play, James "loses control of the football, and the ball touches the ground prior to him regaining control."

I know that sounds crazy. All I can tell you is how the NFL thinks about it. The league's competition committee sees the current rule as the only way to be consistent on possession when a player is going to the ground.

The only real alternative is to redefine a catch to any instance where a player has the ball securely in his hands and is satisfactorily in bounds. The NFL has resisted this change at every turn, however, for two reasons.

First, some "process" plays that are currently ruled incomplete would transform to a catch and a fumble. Second, it would add a much greater degree of subjectivity for officials who would have to determine when a ball is securely in a receiver's hands. Do you want officials being left to define "secure" at live speed, and in cases when the ball subsequently gets loose?

When judging the outcomes and weighing the possibilities, the NFL has decided it will swallow a handful of incomplete rulings every season that defy the eye test -- in exchange for avoiding the subjectivity and additional fumbles.

I hate, as much as you, that the AFC's home-field advantage might be determined by (1) replay review and (2) the catch rule. This instance was a perfect storm where officials needed video to confirm that a counterintuitive rule would negate a play that should have passed everyone's eye tests. It was only a matter of time before circumstances came together to bring us what we saw Sunday night, but I don't see a simple way out of it. Want credit for a catch? Then hold on to the ball. So it goes.