Football fans love to think that they know what constitutes a ‘catch’ in the NFL — almost all of them are wrong

The NFL catch rule is an utter mystery, even to fans that claim to understand it.

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The NFL catch rule is an utter mystery, even to fans that claim to understand it.
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Al Bello/Getty Images

  • The NFL catch rule has made for some of the most controversial play calls of all time.
  • 38% of respondents claimed to understand the NFL catch rule
  • When probed further, only 1 out of every 18 people who think they know what a catch is know the rule.

NFL fans are notoriously critical of what happens on the field.

Whether it’s Monday-morning quarterbacking, debating the merits of a fourth-down decision, or arguing with the referees about a call from the comfort of their barstool, football fans in many cases believe they know the game just as well as those that get paid to play, coach, and officiate it for a living.

One place where this is especially glaring is concerning the ever-changing catch rule. To many, “What is a catch?” has become something of a philosophical quandary in recent years as opposed to a discernible on-field play that can be determined when viewed in slow-motion replay.

As it turns out, most football fans, even those who claim to know what constitutes an NFL catch in 2019, don’t understand the catch rule as it stands today.

INSIDER ran a SurveyMonkey Audience poll that ran January 10-11, 2019 where we asked respondents about their knowledge of the NFL rules regarding overtime and the definition of a catch. We asked 1,078 people how well they understood NFL rules. Right off the bat, 35% said they didn’t watch the NFL, and roughly 18% said they didn’t understand the catch or overtime rules. All told, an impressive 403 (38.4%) claimed to understand the NFL catch rule.

We called that bluff and then asked those people to identify the three things currently required for something to be considered a catch. Those are:

  1. A player secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground.
  2. A player touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body, other than his hands
  3. A player maintains control of the ball long enough to perform an act like tucking the ball away, taking an additional step, extending it forward, or avoiding an opponent.

Unsurprisingly, fans are much more confident in their knowledge of the NFL rulebook than they should be.

Of the 403 claiming to understand the catch rule, just 48 respondents correctly identified the three aspects of the rule as it is currently written. Further, of those 48 respondents, merely 22 identified only the correct three answers, and not one or several other erroneous ones.

This leads us to believe that while about 62% of NFL fans claim to understand the catch rule, realistically only about 3.5% do. More to the point, only 1 out of every 18 people who will try to explain whether a play is indeed a catch will know the by-the-book definition of what they’re talking about.

This may be the result of a rapidly evolving NFL rulebook, and conflict with the increasingly popular college game. Alongside the second option, we also listed definitions that had the player touching the ground inbounds with “one foot,” “any body part,” or “any body part but the hands.”

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Other answer choices related to the controversial and constantly changing third aspect of the catch rule had included that a player “possesses the ball to the ground,” “finishes the process of a catch,” “maintains control long enough to become a runner,” “makes a football move,” “performs an act common to the game,” and “becomes a runner.” Many of these terms applied to previous iterations of the NFL’s definition of a catch, making it unsurprising that some would incorrectly identify them as current aspects of the rule.

Football fans are passionate, and when watching as the referees determine the fate of your favorite team in slow-motion replay, it can be easy to cry out and plead with the television for what you passionately believe is or is not a catch.

But when it comes to the actual rules of the game, chances are the experts know the rules a bit better.

SurveyMonkey Audience polls from a national sample balanced by census data of age and gender. Respondents are incentivized to complete surveys through charitable contributions. Generally speaking, digital polling tends to skew toward people with access to the internet. SurveyMonkey Audience doesn’t try to weight its sample based on race or income. Total 1,116 respondents, a margin of error plus or minus 3.09 percentage points with a 95% confidence level.