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Sterling Shepard’s Non-Touchdowns Force Us To Ask: “What Is A Catch?”

Was Sterling Shepard robbed of a touchdown?

NFL: New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It took New York Giants’ receiver Sterling Shepard three tries, but he finally got a touchdown to count in Sunday’s loss against the Philadelphia Eagles. This, of course, leads us back to the enduring philosophical question of our time:

“What is a catch?”

It’s a question for which nobody, neither the NFL or coaches, seems to have an answer.

“I’m trying to figure out what a touchdown catch and what isn’t a touchdown catch right now. They said he dropped the ball when he went out of bounds.”

-Ben McAdoo


Let’s take a look at his two near-misses in the second quarter and see what the NFL rule book has to say.

First Attempt

This was ruled short of a touchdown, with the ball at the 1-inch line, despite Shepard clearly catching the ball while standing on the goal line. The argument was that the ball did not quite cross the plane of the goal line.

Had Shepard’s foot not touched the sideline, it might have been ruled a touchdown. From the NFL’s rule book:

Second-and-10 on B18. Runner A1 takes handoff and runs down the sideline toward the goal line with the ball in his outside arm. He crosses the goal line plane standing with the ball to the outside of the pylon. Ruling: Touchdown. Part of the ball crossing over or inside the pylon only applies to an airborne runner who lands out of bounds.

Essentially, if the runner touches the pylon while in possession of the ball with his feet in-bounds, the goal line then extends out of bounds. Shepard twisted inside of the endzone as he fell out of bounds, which would arguably have resulted in a touchdown, had he not already touched the sideline before kicking over the pylon.

An inch either way — catching the ball deeper in the endzone or his foot inbounds — and the Giants might have tied the game.

Shepard said about the play, “On the first one I was trying to cut off the interception lane so I kinda came back downhill. Thought I got it in … wish I coulda had that one back. Honestly, I probably would have just fallen backwards.”

Second Attempt

This one is not so clear, and frankly, what leads us to wondering what in the blue blazes constitutes a catch in the NFL.

On third-and-inches, Eli Manning throws the back-corner fade, which Shepard executes beautifully, outrunning the coverage and getting under the ball to cleanly catch and secure it. He doesn’t just get two feet down, but takes three steps with the ball not moving and held in both hands. The problem? His right cleat seems to catch in the turf and he trips as he goes out of bounds, with the ball jarring loose as he hits the ground well out of bounds.

By rule, since he “goes to the ground,” Shepard has to essentially get up and hand the ball to the referee to establish control and for the touchdown to count.

Item 1. Player Going to the Ground. A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), 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. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.

However, the NFL’s own rules contradict themselves:

1) Secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and

2) Touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and

3) Maintains control of the ball after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, until he has the ball long enough to clearly become a runner. A player has the ball long enough to become a runner when, after his second foot is on the ground, he is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact of an opponent, tucking the ball away, turning up field, or taking additional steps (see 3-2-7-Item 2).


Item 3. End Zone Catches. The requirements for a catch in the end zone are the same as the requirements for a catch in the field of play.

Shepard very clearly caught the ball cleanly, controlled it, got his second foot down, then takes additional steps. At that point he has caught the ball, in the end zone, and does not yet start “going to the ground”.

In any reasonable universe, the play probably should have been over at that point, and the game tied at 7.

Shepard, however, doesn’t make any excuses or arguments with the officials.

“The second one with the new rule you’ve gotta get up with the ball,” Shepard said. “I caught the ball, stayed in bounds, got two feet in. I’ve just gotta come up with the ball.”

However, he finally got his touchdown in the fourth quarter, and it was one the referees couldn’t possibly take away.