"A catch, or not a catch", that is the question.
What is a catch? Seriously. What is a catch?
According to most dictionaries, the primary definition of a catch is "To get and hold something in the hands."
But is that the NFL’s definition of a catch? Since we are talking about a catch in an NFL game, we need to look at the NFL’s dictionary, or rulebook, to see what the NFL calls a catch.
If you get the ball in your hands is it a catch? What if you get two feet in bounds? What if you catch it with one hand while eating a chocolate chip cookie with the other hand, all while quoting Scripture in the original Greek?
The question of what constitutes a catch is not a new question for NFL fans who have seen their team lose what appears to be touchdown reception due to it being called an incompletion.
The first time I personally recall this occurring was in Week 1 of the 2010 season. The Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson lost a game winning touchdown, which would have given his team a road win at Chicago. That victory ultimately helped the Bears get a first round bye, plus a pair of home playoff games, which brought them within a pick-six of making the Super Bowl.
Most recently, and most relevant for Cincinnati Bengals fans, the question has come up in the Bengals' Week 3 game against the Baltimore Ravens. On fourth and goal, Bengals' tight end Tyler Eifert initially appeared to catch a ball, and drop it after he had taken some steps and extended it into the endzone. The play was initially called a touchdown on the field, but reversed upon further review and declared an incompletion.
To answer the seemingly simple question, we need to turn to the NFL rulebook. For reference, the NFL Rulebook can be found online on the NFL website.
Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3
COMPLETED OR INTERCEPTED PASS
A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) if a player, who is inbounds:
a) secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
b) touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands and
c) maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has clearly become a runner (See 3-2-7 Item 2)
Since point c) refers to another section on whether the player has clearly become a runner, we must also look at 3-2-7 Item 2 to see what it means to clearly become a runner with possession of the football.
Rule 3, Section 2, Article 7
Item 2. Possession of Loose Ball.
To gain possession of a loose ball that has been caught, intercepted, or recovered, a player must have complete control of the ball and have both feet or any other part of his body, other than his hands, completely on the ground inbounds, and then maintain control of the ball until he has clearly become a runner. A player becomes a runner when he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent. If the player loses the ball while simultaneously touching both feet or any other part of his body to the ground, there is no possession. This rule applies in the field of play and in the end zone.
Notes: (1) 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 until after his initial contact with 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. A player is considered to be going tot eh ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner.
Watching the video in slow motion, the sequence is as follows:
1 – Eifert receives the ball in his hands
2 – Eifert gets 1 foot down
3 – Eifert is hit by the defender.
4 – Eifert’s forward momentum stops. He pivots on the fulcrum of the defender’s shoulders, with his legs going backward and his top half revolving forward.
5 – Eifert’s body begins to go down due to this contact with the defender.
6 – Eifert gets his second foot down
7 – Eifert gets a third touch to the ground with his feet while extending the ball into the endzone
8 – Eifert touches the ground a fourth time with his feet, still extending the ball into the endzone
9 – Eifert loses control of the ball (which is in the endzone) as he makes initial contact with the ground, when the ball hits the back of the defender’s shoes
So now we apply this series of events to the rules per the rulebook.
Per 8-1-3 a) did Eifert secure control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground?
Per 8-1-3 b) did Eifert touch the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands?
Per 8-1-3 c) did Eifert maintain control of the ball after (a) and (b) were fulfilled, clearly becoming a runner per 3-2-7 Item 2 (note 1)?
Why is this third criteria "NO"?
Per the sequence of events above, Eifert is "going to the ground" (#5) before he gets his second foot down (#6), and thus before he is able to clearly establish himself as a runner.
Therefore, per 3-2-7 Item 2 (note 1), because Eifert is now "going to the ground", he must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground whether in the field of play or the end zone.
Eifert does not maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground. Therefore the third criteria is "NO".
The replay official deemed his motion to be going to the ground before he got his second foot down. Therefore, Eifert had to fulfill the "going to the ground" requirement, which is to maintain possession of the ball upon initial contact with the ground, which he did not do.
So, there you have it, according to the NFL's very strange rulebook, Eifert's touchdown was not an NFL touchdown.