How John Harbaugh Helped Re-Define NFL's Catch Rule


It may not be called the "Harbaugh Rule," but Baltimore's head coach has his fingerprints all over the NFL's new catch rule that owners unanimously passed Tuesday at NFL League Meetings.

Harbaugh isn't shy about campaigning for rule changes that he thinks would improve the game, and the catch rule is one that has irked him (and plenty of fans) for years.

The NFL's Competition Committee went to work this offseason re-writing the rule that had become far too convoluted, and a proposal from Harbaugh helped steer the conversation in the right direction.

Harbaugh's contention with the previous rule was the language that included an element of time required to rule a play a catch. It was ambiguous. 

"Nobody could ever figure out what the time element is because it's subjective," Harbaugh said this week. "To me that was the main thing that had to be done because if it's subjective, even in replay, if they slow it down, then what is time? You just can't make heads or tails of it."

To come up with a solution, Harbaugh leaned on one of his assistant coaches who has a great eye when watching tape and a deep understanding of the intricacies of the NFL rule book.

Football Strategy Coordinator Matt Weiss has been with the Ravens since 2009 and he's worked in a variety of areas on Harbaugh's staff, including with the quarterbacks, cornerbacks and linebackers. Weiss also leads the efforts on in-game challenge decisions and studies opponent tendencies.

Weiss dug into tape to look for themes with the catch rule, watching every catch for the last seven years.

"He's a really, really smart guy," Harbaugh said. "He's a really good football coach. And he has a real eye for these kinds of things."

Weiss came up with the idea to replace the time element of a catch with the requirement for a player to take a third step in-bounds. After watching hundreds of catches on film, Weiss put together a tape with several examples of how the proposal would improve the catch rule, which the Ravens presented to the competition committee at the NFL Scouting Combine.

"Matt was really instrumental in putting together the concept, the videotape, that we ended up showing at the combine," Harbaugh said.

During his press conference at league meetings, Competition Committee Chairman Rich McKay credited Harbaugh's proposal with getting them to change their thinking about the rule.

"It got to us that we need to put objective standards as the third act – objective," McKay said.

In their eventual proposal that the owners passed, the competition committee defines the catch based on the following three criteria:

  1. Control of the football
  1. Two feet, or another body part, down in-bounds
  1. A football move, such as a third step, extending the football, tucking the football

The committee built upon the suggestion from Harbaugh and Weiss to include more than just the third step as the standard. They wanted to include "football moves" in general, which added acts such as tucking the football or reaching for the end zone.

But the idea from the Ravens changed the narrative around a catch, and ultimately led to a solution that will improve one of the most-debated rules in the NFL.

"It's a good thing," Harbaugh said. "It's going to be great for fans. It's going to be great for announcers. It's going to be great for players and coaches because you can look at and say, 'OK, he got the foot down, or he didn't get the foot down.' And that's going to be a good thing."

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