Incomplete or Fumble?

By Joe Stephan on August 21, 2014 officials Print

“Smith is back to pass. Johnson is open across the middle. Smith throws! Johnson has it! No, the ball is loose. Oh my goodness, what a hit! There is a mad scramble for the ball and the Wildcats have it. The officials are gathering at the 30. I think they are trying to decide whether it was a fumble or an incomplete pass. It looked like he had it for a second, but then he was leveled by Taylor, the middle linebacker. I don’t know - the officials are going to have to sort it all out.”

We’ve all seen this play before. When is it a catch and fumble, and when is it an incomplete pass? It all happens in a split-second and the result can change the course of the game. As a high school official, you are going to decide - without instant replay - and with both sidelines expecting it to go their way. You may have been the only one to see the play. At best, this is a difficult call to make. You need to be in position to see the play, understand the rules involved, and have good judgment. But in order to be consistent, you must develop a set of guidelines to provide a foundation for your judgment.

The rules associated with this play are found in Rule 2 - under the definitions of “Catch” and “Possession.” A catch is the act of establishing possession of the ball in flight and first contacting the ground inbounds while maintaining possession. A ball in player “Possession” is a live ball held or controlled by a player after he has caught it. In order for a catch to be completed, the player must establish that he has possession. Possession of the ball is determined by the player’s ability to hold and control the ball … after he has caught it. This implies that there is some period of time between the catch and when possession has been established and two specific actions - catch and possession. The completion of the catch is based on the player’s ability to show that he has possession of the ball and possession is based on his ability to control it.

The official must be in position to see if the player has caught the ball, and then he must determine if possession was established. Does the player have control of the football after the catch? If the official can establish guidelines for determining control, then he can greatly reduce the amount of judgment required to make the call and increase his consistency. The rules book does not define “control,” so each official must come up with his or her own definition. The point here is to have a checklist of actions that define “control,” so that when you have this call to make, you have a foundation on which to base your decision.

The first place to start is with the initial catch. Coaches teach their receivers to catch the ball in their hands by firmly grasping the ball away from their body. Once the ball is caught in their hands, they are to bring the ball into their body to secure possession. This could be achieved by bringing the ball into the stomach or chest, or under an arm. This process clearly defines a catch and possession, and is observable. If the ball is knocked loose before the ball is secured by the body or under an arm, it is an incomplete pass. If the ball is loose after it has been secured, it is a fumble.

Unfortunately, players do not always make a clean catch with their hands. Sometimes, the ball is juggled and sometimes the ball is caught by trapping it against the body. In these cases, we have to rely on other actions to determine control and possession. It could be as subtle as moving the ball from the chest to the stomach or under an arm, or as graphic as making a move on a defender. You could also observe a period of time that he has the ball in his grasp by counting the seconds - “one thousand-one, one thousand-two.” Again, we are looking for some action that indicates that the receiver has control of the football.

Another indication of control can be seen by how the player moves after the catch. Is he able to make an “athletic or football move”? Control can be observed by the way he handles the ball or the movement of his body. Some players hold the ball in one hand and actually use the ball to fake out the defender. If he is able to show control in this way, he has possession. If he demonstrates coordination in movements by making a spin move or a fake step or by coming to an abrupt stop, he is exhibiting control. This movement should be generated by the player and not by contact or momentum. Again, all of these actions are observable and should play out like a checklist in your mind.

In the play described in the opening paragraph, it would have been nearly impossible for the receiver to have established control. It sounds as though he has made the initial catch. The announcer mentions that the catch is made. He must have observed that the receiver had grasped the ball. The next description of action describes the hit by the linebacker. There was no indication of a move by the receiver or even an attempt by the receiver to evade the defender. There was simply not enough time between the catch and the contact for the receiver to have established possession of the football. It was a good idea for the officials to get together to discuss the call. Did the receiver have control of the football? In this case, he did not and therefore did not have possession and the pass was incomplete.

There will always be an element of judgment involved. If there is still a question in your mind after applying your guidelines, then rule the pass incomplete. If you are unsure, it is most likely because the receiver had not fully demonstrated control. By ruling incomplete, the result is somewhat neutral. The defense is rewarded for breaking up the pass and the offense maintains possession. A fumble and recovery on this type of play is a big momentum-changer. Make sure it is deserved!

If possible, rule quickly and decisively. Blow your whistle and give the appropriate signal. If you are uncertain, get some help from other members of your crew. Discuss with your referee and any other covering officials what you saw. The referee will make a decision and rule on the play.

“Well, it looks like the officials have come to a decision and have ruled the pass incomplete. I don’t know about that call - it looked like he caught it and then fumbled. That would have been a big play for the Wildcats. I think they took one away from us on that one. Oh well, it’s third down. The Wildcats need a big play.”