Inside Slant: The counterintuitive 'process'

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
9:30
AM ET
JohnsonTim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsCalvin Johnson dropped a would-be TD catch because he didn't complete the "process of the catch."
In 2010, I sat in the Soldier Field press box and watched as "process of the catch" became a term of great derision and mystery. Four seasons later, it seems, nothing has changed. Players, fans, media members and even officials remain confused about the corresponding rule, what it means, and how it should be implemented.

Three plays from Week 1 help illustrate our continuing state of disorder, one that first became evident when Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson lost an apparent game-winning touchdown in 2010 after leaving the ball on the ground to go celebrate. As we (thought we) learned at the time, the NFL rulebook includes this note in Rule 3, Section 2, Article 7:

"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 throughout the process of contacting 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. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, it is a catch, interception, or recovery."

Johnson lost another touchdown Sunday, against the Minnesota Vikings, after replay officials and referee John Parry ruled -- correctly -- that he did not control the ball through the entire process of the catch. When you watch the replay, you see Johnson gather Matthew Stafford's pass in a firm grasp with two hands and with two feet on the ground at the 1-yard line. He dove across the goal line, but the ball trickled out when his arms hit the ground.

Regardless of what you think about the rule, Parry's decision made sense given its wording -- at least until Sunday night. In the third quarter at AT&T Stadium, New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz was awarded an 18-yard touchdown catch under what seemed to be identical circumstances to the play ruled incomplete a few hours earlier in Detroit.

Cruz made a leaping grab at the 1-yard line, turned toward the end zone and stretched the ball with his right hand over the goal line. When the ball hit the ground, it squirted out of his hand. Cruz did not regain possession.

What was the difference between Cruz's touchdown and Johnson's incompletion? I suppose you could argue that Cruz wasn't going to the ground as he made the catch. His dive over the goal line was a separate action, coming after he technically gained possession.

Regardless, the rule put referee Tony Corrente in a tough spot, and it's not at all clear that he made the right call. Former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, now a Fox Sports analyst, tweeted this week: "The Cruz catch was ruled complete. It should not have. Ball came lose when he hit the ground. He did not complete the process."

In the aftermath, no one from the Dallas Cowboys complained about the call, from what I could tell. The knowledgeable announcing duo of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth didn't immediately question it, either. The play passed the smell test, as did Johnson's, and applying the "process rule" seemed artificial and awkward to the layman.

[+] EnlargeJoique Bell
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJoique Bell lost the handle on this carry, but not before he had crossed the plane and scored.
That sense seems especially vivid when considering our third play, also from the Lions' victory over the Vikings. In the second quarter, Lions running back Joique Bell took a handoff at the 1-yard line, leaped and stretched the ball over the goal line. Almost instantaneously, Vikings safety Jamarca Sanford knocked the ball lose.

Parry initially ruled the play a fumble and awarded possession to the Vikings on the recovery. Upon reviewing the replay, however, Parry noted correctly that the ball crossed the plane a moment before Sanford dislodged it. In such situations, the play is dead the moment the ball crossed the plane. The ruling is a touchdown. Nothing that happens afterward matters at all.

So why is the Bell play dead the moment the ball crosses the plane, while the Johnson play is not? That question has always bothered me. It's as if the NFL has two separate rules for possession in the end zone, one for a running play and one for the pass.

The clinical answer is that the league does not consider Johnson to be in possession of the ball as he falls to the ground. He can have the ball firmly in grasp, with two feet on the ground, but if he is falling, the process rule means he must have possession until after he has landed.

Only then, according to the rule, could Johnson be in possession and be awarded the touchdown that Bell got by crossing the plane long before he fell to the ground and an instant before he fumbled.

I can understand that explanation in a vacuum, but too often this rule leads to decisions that don't pass the obvious smell test. The league considered but ultimately abandoned attempts to rewrite the rule a few years ago. Here's hoping the smart men on the competition committee revive those discussions.

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