What is a catch in the NFL? Explaining the rules for completing a catch in 2020

Dez Bryant would have caught it had he been playing in 2020 and not in 2014. This was the NFL’s goal when it simplified the catch rules that robbed the then-Cowboys wide receiver of a critical play in that season’s NFC divisional playoff game against the Packers.

From the league’s perspective, the phrase “Dez caught it” became common verbiage in the following years for all of the wrong reasons. It was the most notable among many examples of the NFL’s rules to complete a catch (or an interception) being too ambiguous.

The NFL unsuccessfully tweaked the wording of its catch rules a few months after the Bryant play, and after a couple more seasons of confusion regarding the interpretation of the rules, another tipping point arrived.

A massive Steelers-Patriots game late in the 2017 season was decided in the last minute by a baffling incompletion call on what appeared to be a Jesse James touchdown catch. Technically, the call was correct under the letter of the law. But it was then when the NFL realized there were too many letters in the law.

The public was told by NFL officiating chief Al Riveron that James did not score against New England because he failed to “survive the ground” after he lunged forward with the ball and crossed the goal line as part of his catching motion. So the NFL the following spring simply stripped such ridiculous language out of its catch standards and simplified the rules.

Below is are the NFL catch rules the league established that year. They remain in place in 2020.

NFL catch rules in 2020

A few months after NFL team owners voted to pass simplified catch rules in March of 2018, Riveron told Sporting News the league did so in the name of entertainment. He insisted it was not a reaction to the persistent confusion regarding NFL catch rules.

“I think we got to a point where fans, the office, coaches, players wanted to see more exciting plays,” Riveron said. “How do we make this particular play a catch? How do we take the Dez Bryant play and make it a catch and still stay within the rules and the confines? How do we get these exciting plays back in the game?

“I know we’ve come up with a great rule.”

The NFL’s simplified catch rules, which also apply to interceptions, require the player to do three things: Control the ball, get two feet or another body part down, and make a “football move,” like a third step/reach reach for the line to gain; or the ability to perform such a move.

Below is the official language of the NFL’s catch rules, which can be found in Rule 8, Section 1, Articles 3-4 in the league’s rule book.

A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) in the field of play, at the sideline, or in the end zone if a player, who is inbounds:


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