When is a catch not a catch? NFL keeps debating Dez Bryant play

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant appeared to make a catch against Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields during Sunday’s game.
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant appeared to make a catch against Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields during Sunday’s game. The Associated Press

Former Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez caught 1,325 passes during his 17-year NFL career, and he never found himself victim of the mysterious and misunderstood rule that overturned a big catch by Dallas’ Dez Bryant in Sunday’s NFL playoffs.

After Bryant made what appeared to be a 31-yard catch to the Green Bay 1, he lost complete control of the ball after he hit the turf a yard short of the goal line. The Packers challenged the completion, and referee Gene Steratore overturned the catch, ruling that Bryant didn’t complete the process of a reception.

The sequence with 4 minutes, 42 seconds left in the game proved pivotal in Green Bay’s 26-21 victory and was the talk of the NFL heading into this Sunday’s NFC and AFC championship games. It prompted discussions of exactly what is and what isn’t a catch.

“I had never seen anything like that,” said Gonzalez, who spent 12 seasons of his Hall of Fame-bound career with the Chiefs and five with Atlanta. “According to the rulebook, it was not a catch, but I am of the opinion that is a catch, if there ever was a catch.

“But according to the rule, that’s the way it is, and you have to abide by it, but I think that rule needs to be changed. It needs to be addressed. That will be something the (competition) committee might have to take a look at and re-evaluate and maybe come up with something that’s better.”

Mike Pereira, former senior director of officiating for the NFL and now a studio analyst for Fox Sports, expects the Competition Committee to review the controversial rule this spring.

The committee, which includes Dallas Cowboys executive vice-president Stephen Jones, studied the rule after Detroit’s Calvin Johnson was denied an apparent touchdown catch in a 2010 game when he lost control of the ball while pulling himself off the ground.

“After the Calvin Johnson play, the committee looked at it for a long period of time,” Pereira said Wednesday during a teleconference, “and they came up with nothing.”

In Johnson’s case, Pereira said the committee “couldn’t find a bright line” to determine the process of the receiver’s completing the act of making the catch.

“Was it before he hit the ground, was it after he hit the ground?” Pereira said of Johnson’s losing the ball. “Quite frankly, both plays, if you try to say it’s a catch immediately when you get control and get two feet down … for every one of Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson’s catches you’re going to have 20 that are bang-bang plays that are (now) automatically incomplete that would now go to catch-and-fumble, and you’d have a game with a ton more turnovers.

“I don’t think the committee wanted that, and they couldn’t find any bright line, and I’m not sure they will this year, even though it will be discussed.”

Pereira went on camera last Sunday and made a point that while the ground can’t cause a fumble by a runner, it can cause an in completion for a receiver. Pereira explained the difference Wednesday.

“A runner who goes down to the ground (is) down by contact,” he said, “the ground can’t cause a fumble, but a receiver who is trying to complete the process of the catch does not become a runner until he has completed that catch. So you’re dealing with two different beasts. Once you complete the process, by rule, and you become a runner, the ground can’t cause a fumble, but not before.”

The history of what is known as The Process Rule dates to the 1999 NFC Championship Game in St. Louis when Tampa Bay’s Bert Emanuel appeared to have made a critical catch in the fourth quarter but the play was overturned — in the first year of the current replay system — because Emanuel came down to the turf on top of the ball.

“It was ruled on the field a catch and reversed in replay to incomplete because the ball touched the ground,” Pereira said. “The committee, and I felt, too, that it was a shame to take away a great play, just because the ball touched the ground.

“So the rule changed from the ball touching the ground, to maintaining control of the ball after the ball touched the ground. That’s really the fundamental change and when it started.”

That doesn’t make Bryant, the Cowboys, or even Gonzalez, now an analyst for CBS Sports, feel any better about it.

“It was a fantastic play at a crucial part of the game,” Gonzalez said, “and it stings a little bit that it’s going to be put in the referees’ hands at that point because of that rule. It took away from a great game.”

To reach Randy Covitz, call 816-234-4796 or send email to Follow him on Twitter at @randycovitz.