What is a "football move"?

Dear Sports Fan,

What the heck is a “football move”? I think I understand that a wide receiver making a catch has to catch the ball and then make a “football move” to get credit for it but I don’t get what a “football move” is. I mean, we’re watching football players play football, right? Isn’t basically everything a “football move”? Isn’t the catch itself a “football move”?


Dear Alexander,

You ask a very reasonable question. It’s one that puzzles most football fans and even some football players. The phrase “football move” doesn’t actually appear in the NFL rule-books at all but it is used popularly to explain a rule that dictates whether a player has caught the football or not. This rule has always been a little controversial and it became even more so when it virtually decided a playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys earlier this year. In plain English, the rule states that in order to be considered a completed catch, a player has to catch the ball and maintain control over it long enough to do something else before the play is considered to be a completed catch. Here’s the rule in NFLese:

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 long enough, after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, to enable him to perform any act
common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an
opponent, etc.).
Note 1: It is not necessary that he commit such an act, provided that he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so.
Note 2: If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball will not be considered a loss of possession. He must
lose control of the ball in order to rule that there has been a loss of possession.

I know, I know, the NFL is run by lawyers with a distinct flair for the obtuse. Still, the rule is actually not that hard to understand. I’ll do my best to explain it.

The first thing to understand is what this rule is attempting to do and why they are important. This rule is tries to set an objective line between a play that is not a completed pass and one that is. This is important because there are four possible outcomes when a quarterback throws his teammate the ball and they are widely varied in terms of their effect on the game:

  1. An incomplete pass — if the quarterback throws the ball and no one catches it — means that the play stops and the offense gets the ball back where they started that play only instead of first down, now it’s second or instead of third, now it’s fourth.
  2. A complete pass — when the quarterback throws the ball and his teammate catches it — means that the play continues until the receiver of the ball runs out-of-bounds or is tackled.
  3. A complete pass followed by a fumble — after the quarterback’s teammate catches the ball, he runs around and then drops the ball — the play continues but it’s a free-for-all; whoever picks up the ball gets it, including the defensive team.
  4. An interception — when a member of the opposing team catches the ball — the play continues and the defender can run with the ball but when he is tackled or goes out-of-bounds, his team gets to play offense.

These categories seem obvious but they get tricky at the edges. For instance, it’s intuitive that if the quarterback throws the ball and it hits the ground, it’s an incomplete pass. Likewise, if the quarterback throws the ball and it bounces off his teammates head and then hits the ground, it’s still an incomplete pass. But what if it bounces off his teammate’s hands as he’s trying to catch the ball? Still an incomplete pass but now we’re starting to feel less sure of things, right? Now, if the receiver catches the ball and runs for ten seconds, dodging defenders the whole time, and then drops the ball, that’s clearly a fumble. But what if he only runs around for five seconds? Still a fumble? What about four? What about three, two, one? Somewhere, there has to be a line between an incomplete pass and a catch followed by a fumble.

The NFL chose to define that boundary as when a player “maintains control of the ball long enough” after catching the ball and landing in-bounds to “enable him to perform any act common to the game.” Since the game in question is football, that phrase has been condensed in popular usage to a “football move.” In other words, a player has to catch the ball and hold it for long enough for him to theoretically do something else with it before it’s considered a catch. Of course, players on a football field don’t stand still very much of the time when a play is happening. This is why the last twist on this rule came into being. People don’t say that a receiver has to “catch the ball and then hold it long enough to make a football move”, they say that a player has to “catch the ball and then make a football move”. Since the NFL did not define how many seconds (or more likely tenths of a second) would be long enough to make a football move, the rule has shifted (for the purposes of reasonable enforcement) to be that a player has to demonstrate possession while he makes a football move after the catch.

I guess the only question we’re left with is “why should this be the definition of a catch?” I like to think about it like this: until a player is able to show that he’s done catching the ball and is ready and able to do something else on the field, he’s still in the process of catching the ball. Once a player is able to move on from catching the ball to dodge defenders, change direction or speed, or dive forward, then they’re done catching the ball.

Make sense? If it does, you’re ahead of everyone else. I think eventually we’ll see the NFL simply set an amount of time, probably three tenths of a second that a receiver must possess the ball before the play is considered a completed pass. That, plus biological sensors in the ball and everyone’s gloves will solve this issue for us once and for all. Until then, enjoy the debates about what exactly constitutes a “football move” and whether so-and-so made a catch or not.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

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