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It happens a lot: a receiver catches the ball, drops it, it is called a fumble on the field. Then there is some expert commentator giving his opinion on whether the receiver made a 'football move' after catching the ball.

It came up with Texans v Colts this year. Johnson's drop was called a fumble, a talking head confidently stated it would be reversed because Johnson clearly didn't have possession and make a football move. It was not reversed. This happens a lot.

Is this term 'football move' defined anywhere in the rule book? Are there explicit criteria to be applied? I looked in the online version and didn't find anything:

https://www.nfl.info/download/2012MediaGuides/2013%20NFL%20Rule%20Book.pdf

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In the 2013 Official Playing Rules of the NFL, 8.1.3 covers the rules on a completed pass:

COMPLETED OR INTERCEPTED PASS

Article 3 Completed or Intercepted Pass. A player who makes a catch may advance the ball. 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.

  • +1 Good find. Welcome to Sports.SE! It's interesting that the media always talks about a "football move," and that term is not in the rulebook. But this is definitely what they are talking about. – Ben Miller Dec 24 '14 at 14:21
  • Very interesting that it is defined by the time needed to complete a football move, not by actually doing something. That is useful to know, as I've always wondered what if they have possession, and just stop and stand there and do not make a football move. I guess the question is, how long is this duration? About a second or two I would guess? – neuronet Dec 24 '14 at 14:38
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    Dez Bryant taking three steps and then lunging toward the endzone does not qualify as advancing with the football? Apparently the correct way to finish a catch is to immediately find the softest spot on the field and lay down. – Michael T Jan 12 '15 at 14:17
  • So to directly answer the original posted question, a "football move" is in part (c) above, namely an "act common to the game" such as pitching the ball, passing it, advancing with it, avoiding or warding off an opponent, etc. Note that (c) includes "pass it", you obviously cannot pass the ball after catching or intercepting the ball. – stackoverflowuser2010 Jan 13 '15 at 21:58
  • You are allowed to pass the ball backwards after a catch. – ZsasZ Dec 8 '15 at 4:28
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If you're in a tl/dr mood, I would just say that in order to define what a catch is, the NFL had to create some dividing line between not a catch and a catch. They chose to define it as a player who establishes control of the ball, lands on the field, and then holds it for long enough to do something else. This something else is commonly referred to as a football move.

This seems like a reasonable enough line to draw because if a player has the time and wherewithal to do something else, he's probably done catching the ball. If he doesn't, he's probably still in the process of catching the ball.

If you want more detail, I wrote a longer post about this on my own blog here: http://wp.me/p1A2WF-ND

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