What’s the Catch? Why Odell Beckham Jr.’s Game-Winning Touchdown Didn’t Count

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One person throws the ball. Another person catches the ball. It all seems so simple. But what constitutes a reception in the NFL is now more complicated than any relationship status on Facebook.

See, it's no longer enough to possess the ball with two feet in-bounds. In football, there is an ever-evolving idea of how a completion is defined, rewritten just this summer after Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant absolutely made a catch against the Packers during the playoffs in January, but was ruled to have lost possession when reaching for the goal line. No catch. No touchdown. Now, not even some of the league's best receivers fully understand what it is they do.

Here's a breakdown of the new rule, which replaces old language that called for players to maintain possession long enough to make a "football play," or make an attempt to advance the ball after the catch:

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  • In order to complete a catch, a receiver must clearly become a runner.
  • He does that by gaining control of the ball, touching both feet down, and then, after the second foot is down, having the ball long enough to clearly become a runner, which is defined as the ability to ward off or protect himself from impending contact.
  • If, before becoming a runner, a receiver falls to the ground in an attempt to make a catch, he must maintain control of the ball after contacting the ground.
  • If he loses control of the ball after contacting the ground and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete.
  • Reaching the ball out before becoming a runner will not trump the requirement to hold onto the ball when you land.
  • When you are attempting to complete a catch, you must put the ball away or protect the ball so it does not come loose.

That took 158 words to described an act that is, should someone toss keys at or near your face today, purely instinctual. And the added complication now makes for a confusing Sunday afternoon week in and week out. The main difference this season is the phrase "become a runner," which puts a clear division between the actions of receivers and running backs.

Pro Bowl receiver Odell Beckham Jr. appeared to snag a go-ahead touchdown catch with two minutes to play against the Patriots Sunday. He caught the ball with two hands above his head, and then came down in the end zone with his right and then left foot a beat before defender Malcolm Butler swatted the ball away. No catch. No touchdown.

It was incomplete because Beckham didn't maintain control long enough to "become a runner" even though he had the ball with two feet down in the end zone. Running backs, however, are allowed to have the ball stripped out of their hands before entering the end zone so long as the nose of the ball hovers above the goal line as they stretch their arms over a pile of lineman. It's a touchdown because the nature of their position immediately establishes them as a runner. Should Beckham have to jog around a little to define his position?

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"I lost us the game," Beckham told reporters. "The play should've been made. You can't leave it up to the officials to get anything right. You just got to make the play itself."

Beckham is right. But the NFL is likely erring on the side of incomplete in these instances because otherwise a lot more dropped passes become fumbles under the wrong circumstances, and an incompletion, even if it's incorrect, feels like the safer outcome (much to the chagrin of Seattle Seahawks fans Sunday). The rule will probably be rewritten a couple times before the league gets it right – vetted by lawyers, no doubt, and interpreted by the aging eyes of professional referees.

What ever happened to the days when a catch was a catch?

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