PLANO, Texas — Walt Coleman doesn’t see the revamped catch rule as a big change for NFL game officials because the veteran referee believes they’ve already been calling catches the new way.
If anything, Coleman figures there will be fewer reviews of their rulings.
“Most of the calls that seemed to create the most controversy, we ruled them correctly and then they were overturned on replay,” Coleman said Friday as officials gathered for their annual preseason meeting in the Dallas area. “From our standpoint, we’re just going to continue to officiate the plays like we have.”
League owners unanimously approved the changes in April — more than three years after Dez Bryant’s infamous catch that wasn’t in Dallas’ playoff loss at Green Bay, and just a few months since Pittsburgh’s Jesse James had a late go-ahead touchdown taken away in a loss to New England that damaged the Steelers’ hopes for the AFC’s top seed.
Essentially, the new rule eliminates the ground as a factor on catches while establishing three main criteria: having control of the ball; getting two feet down or another body part; and making a football move, such as taking a third step or extending the ball.
On the plays involving Bryant and James, the ball moved slightly after hitting the ground as they extended it forward, even though they never lost control of it. Both were ruled catches and overturned on review.
“I don’t think it was one thing,” senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron said. “I think we got to a point where fans, the office, coaches, players, wanted to see more exciting plays. How do we make this particular play a catch? How do we take the Dez Bryant play and make it a catch?”
Riveron said the competition committee consulted with coaches, former players, game officials and supervisors, among others, to reach the rule change that was approved.
The committee cited overturned receptions by James and fellow tight end Zach Miller of Chicago last season among the dozens of plays they reviewed “dozens of times,” according to committee chairman Rick McKay, president of the Atlanta Falcons.
Ron Torbert, going into his fifth season as a referee and ninth overall as a game official, doesn’t think the new rule is just about simplicity.
“We had a good idea of what it was and how to officiate it,” Torbert said. “We certainly understand that the way it was written, plays that people wanted to be a catch weren’t a catch under the older rule. We understand that.”
And while game officials are hesitant to share opinions on anything related to their role, they can see where fans sit with the catch rule.
“I think fans will like it more because we’ve got some of the greatest athletes in the world who can do things that no one else can do,” Torbert said. “To be able to see them rewarded with a catch when under the old rule it may not have been a catch, I think from that standpoint the fans will enjoy the game more.”
Coleman, getting ready for his 30th NFL season, was in his third year as a referee when he called the reversal in the “tuck rule” game during the playoffs following the 2001 season. He changed what had been ruled a fumble by New England quarterback Tom Brady to an incompletion, leading to a winning field goal that sent the Patriots on their way to the first of five Super Bowl titles.
While he didn’t make the call on the Bryant catch that was overturned (recently retired Gene Steratore did), Coleman saw similarities in how reactions to the two calls lingered for years. And he certainly heard from fans on the catch rule in general .
“People just didn’t understand that you had to hold on to the ball going to the ground,” Coleman said. “When you catch the ball and you reach out, everybody thought that should be a catch. The way the rule was written, it wasn’t.”
And now the way the rule is written, it is.