How NFL trains officials to call catch rule: If in doubt, incomplete

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Brunell: There will always be gray area with NFL's catch rule (0:51)

Mark Brunell thinks no matter how clear the NFL attempts to make the catch rule, there will always be gray area. Herm Edwards says officials should just use their eyes. (0:51)

IRVING, Texas -- Dean Blandino paused and lowered his voice. As he watched players run by on the video screen, the NFL's vice president of officiating smiled.

"It's so easy," he said, "when they hold on to the ball."

Yes. Yes it is. If players did it all the time, of course, debate over the NFL's vexing catch rule would be moot. The rule exists to adjudicate instances when the ball squirts free before possession is obvious. And though its substance remains unchanged in 2016, Blandino carved out a portion of his annual officiating clinic to demystify its intent and reinforce that he will support calls reflective of its spirit, even when they spark public controversy.

"The biggest thing is we all have to be on the same page," Blandino told a ballroom packed with all of the NFL's 124 game officials. "The rule is a good rule."

Many fans and neutral observers seem to have made up their minds to oppose that sentiment, minimizing any impact of the league's public crusade to explain it. But in a separate interview on Friday, Blandino reported significant offseason progress with an arguably more important group: NFL coaches. On the opening day of the clinic, Blandino provided a glimpse of how he is selling the rule around the league, as well as the way he is instructing officials to call it.

I was among several reporters who sat in on Friday's session, and what follows is what I saw and gleaned:

Most notable was the simplest and most organic wording I've heard yet associated with the catch rule, amid what seems to be a constantly fluctuating series of tweaks and mantras.

"When it's bang-bang," Blandino told the officials, "rule it incomplete. When in doubt, make it incomplete."

My major objection over the years has been that no sports rule should be so difficult to dissect, but reasonable people can build off the "bang-bang" standard. There are three elements to a catch: control, two feet in bounds and enough time to become a runner. The league has struggled to define the time element in a simple manner, but "bang-bang" allows for common sense to emerge.

To support that directive, Blandino showed a series of plays from the 2015 season. In each case, he asked if they were "bang-bang." First up was a pass to Tennessee Titans receiver Harry Douglas in Week 11. Douglas had the ball in his hands; but when viewed at full speed, he lost it almost immediately, as Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Aaron Colvin tackled him.

"Was that bang-bang?" Blandino asked the officials.

"Yes," they replied.

"OK, so it's incomplete."

You could break down the play in slow motion and see that Douglas secured the ball with two hands while his feet were on the ground and in bounds, achieving the first two criteria of the catch rule. Then you could see that he did not become a runner, because he did not take two full steps with possession.

Or, you could just ask yourself: Is it bang-bang? If so, the play will -- or, at least should -- be called incomplete.

"Which one is the easier question to answer?" Blandino asked the officials. "Bang-bang or two steps? Bang-bang. That's why the rule is written that way. For you on the field. When it's bang-bang, rule it incomplete. When in doubt, make it incomplete. Then if we look at it on replay and it did appear the receiver had it long enough, then we change it and move on. Don't change how you're officiating these plays. Bang-bang is incomplete, and the time element allows us to be consistent on these bang-bang plays."

The next play came in a Week 3 game between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys, burned in the 2014 playoffs when a pass to falling receiver Dez Bryant was ruled incomplete, watched as tight end Gavin Escobar was ruled to have caught a pass and then fumbled the ball. In this case, Escobar had turned and braced for Eagles cornerback Malcolm Jenkins' hit after making the catch.

"Was that bang-bang?" Blandino repeated?

"No," the officials responded.

The Escobar and Douglas plays, of course, represented the far reaches of a black-and-white spectrum filled with gray in the middle. So Blandino showed a third play: Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert's much-discussed no-catch ruling on the goal line in Week 3. On that play, Eifert secured the ball with two feet on the ground. He took a step toward the goal line before beginning to fall over Baltimore Ravens safety Brynden Trawick. The ball popped out as Eifert hit the ground in the end zone. The ruling: Incomplete, because Eifert did not become a runner before going to the ground, and he did not control the ball after landing.

"This is tough," Blandino told the officials. "These are the plays. There are going to be four or five plays like this every year where everybody says, 'That's got to be a catch. It looks like a catch. On the playground, that's a catch. In the school yard, that's a catch. But it's not under our rule, because he did not have the ball long enough to be a runner before he got to the ground."

In these cases, when a receiver starts falling before he has met the time standard, Blandino added, he must "survive the ground." He simplified it further: "If they hold on to it, it's a catch."

In speaking to a handful of referees on Friday, I got the sense they are far more comfortable with the rule than the public is. They speak the language of the NFL rulebook. They long ago accepted that their work will be dissected, debated and criticized.

"What is a catch?" referee Brad Allen repeated after hearing the question.

"A catch is controlling the ball. Two feet in bounds. And holding on to it long enough to become a runner. How's that?"

Coaches, players and fans, of course, do not always speak the same language. Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said in January that he didn't know what a catch was anymore, and a number of his contemporaries repeated similar concerns in March.

So during offseason trips to meet with all 32 coaching staffs over the past few months, Blandino and his staff used a similar message and emphasized the bang-bang concept. According to Blandino, all but one -- which he implied was the Cowboys -- experienced what he called an "Aha!" moment. (Blandino, speaking at a hotel near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, said the exception was one coaching staff "near to this city.")

"The rule is pretty simple," he said. "Control, plus two feet, plus time. The time element allows you on the field to consistently rule the bang-bang play incomplete."

I know. Some of you understand the rule but object to the time standard. Why can't it just be a catch when the ball is secure and two feet are down in bounds? That's a debate for another day, and more importantly, it's irrelevant for this season and the foreseeable future. The NFL is committed to this approach. You've heard its public pitch, and now you know what it's saying behind closed doors. Bang-bang is incomplete. And so it goes.