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Nate’s Notebook: Pass Interference – If it ain’t broke, break it!

It’s just after 6:00 pm on the night of January 20th, 2019 when the robbery occurred. A group of men dressed in black pants and black and white shirts broke into the Louisiana Superdome and stole the NFC Championship trophy from the New Orleans Saints.

NFL officials might not actually be crooks, but on this night, a certain call was downright criminal. Facing a 3rd and 10 from the Rams 13 yard line, Drew Brees drops back and throws a pass towards TommyLee Lewis, who is obliterated well before the ball arrives. I’m sure you’ve seen the play a hundred times but just in case you need a refresher …

Everyone in the world knows that’s pass interference except the officials, you know, the only people who could actually do something about it. It was a blown call! And it likely changed the outcome of that game, and possibly the course of history for the New Orleans Saints.

So, the NFL did what the NFL does. They overreact.

A New Rule is Born

The NFL competition committee, of which Saints’ coach Sean Payton is a member, decided it would be in the best interest of the game to make pass interference calls reviewable. Beginning with the current 2019 NFL football season, coaches would now be able to challenge calls that were wrong and non-calls that should have been flagged. Many openly wondered how this rule would work out. Well, halfway through the season we have our answer.

It’s been an absolute disaster.

Sure, no games have ended with a blown call as we saw in the NFC title game. What we do have is a system that seems hell-bent on having the call on the field stand. After a few calls were changed early in the season, overturns are now nearly non-existent. It’s left head coaches dumbfounded and confused and fans pissed off as easy calls continue to be missed. Except now, these missed calls cost the teams more than just frustration. If you challenge and lose (which you will), your team loses a timeout. Coaches have figured this out and are no longer challenging pass interference calls in important situations because of the unwillingness of the NFL to change these calls. 

Defining the Rules

Let’s take a look at what the rules actually say. Defensive pass interference occurs when a player “significantly hinders” a receiver from making a play on the ball. Offensive pass interference is called when 1) a receiver pushes off to gain separation from a defender, 2) an offensive player is blocking more than 1 yard downfield before a pass is caught, or 3) pick plays where a Receiver A makes contact with the defender of Receiver B more than one yard downfield. 

Here’s what the competition committee set as the standard for reviewing and overturning pass interference calls and non-calls:

A decision on the field will only be reversed based on clear and obvious visual evidence that the ruling was incorrect, the same standard for all reviews.

I want to discuss this in two separate parts. 

Part A

To be overturned, there needs to be “clear and obvious visual evidence.” That’s a fair standard, and I would expect nothing less. But how many times already this season have we seen pretty obvious interference NOT be overturned? It happens every week. 

Remember this play from the Thursday night game between the Giants and Patriots? Golden Tate is mugged. No call. The play is challenged. The no call is upheld.

Remember, there are two things that should be working together. Was the receiver “significantly hindered” as the rulebook states, and did replay provide “clear and obvious visual evidence.” 

You be the judge.

Here’s another example from the Packers vs. Eagles in Week 4. 

No call on the field, the call is challenged, and the ruling is upheld. How can any sane and competent person look at this picture and not see a) a receiver being significantly hindered, and b) clear and obvious evidence of said interference? Eagles CB Avante Maddox is not looking for the ball, is making clear contact with Marques Valdez-Scantling, and even has his left hand up under the facemask. 

Again, these failures to correct wrong calls are not only pissing coaches off, it’s taking a timeout away as well. 

Part B

The other part of the competition committee’s statement is easy to miss. They say the pass interference reviews will be “the same standard for all reviews.” How can the NFL defend this stance? In nearly every NFL football game, we see calls of fumbles or catches overturned by looking at the smallest detail to make sure it’s correct. If a running back is ruled to be down by contact on the field but replay seems to show the ball coming loose a split second before his knee hits the ground, the call is overturned and declared a fumble. Imagine a ball carrier clearly fumbling the ball while his knee is still 8 inches off the ground, the play being challenged, and the call being upheld. This is literally what the NFL is doing with pass interference reviews. They are absolutely not judging PI and other reviews by “the same standard.”

Final Thought

The truth is the NFL doesn’t want a slew of pass interference calls overturned. NFL coaches are learning to not even bother challenging obviously wrong calls, and the NFL couldn’t be happier. This isn’t about getting calls right, it’s about covering their behinds. What happened in the Superdome last January was an embarrassment to the premier sports league in America. For two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, all anyone wanted to talk about was the Saints getting screwed.

 If the play with Golden Tate or MVS had happened on a crucial play late in the 4th quarter of a conference championship game, there is no doubt the call would have been overturned. This is far more disturbing than the missed call in the NFC championship. At least in that game the referee just made a terrible error. But once it was made, there wasn’t anything that could be done to fix it. Now, similarly bad calls have a way of being fixed, but the NFL is purposely allowing bad calls to stand. 

It’s not about being right. It’s about protecting the product against embarrassment. The next time one of these incompetent officials makes a terrible, game-changing call at the end of a playoff game, the NFL has an ace in the hole.

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