What a game! What a finish! What a load of garbage!
On Monday night, the Carolina Panthers beat the New England Patriots 24-20 on a near-perfect two-minute drive by quarterback Cam Newton and a corresponding defensive stop. In just over a minute, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady led his team down to within striking distance, before heaving a last-second throw into the end zone for tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The pass was intercepted by Panthers cornerback Robert Lester. Game over, right?
Not so fast, my friends...
A yellow flag flew in, due to an apparent pass interference call on Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. It appeared as if the Patriots would be receiving an untimed down right outside the goal line—the Patriots offense against the Panthers' ridiculously talented front seven. It was going to be glorious! Then, the referees conferred and picked up the flag. No pass interference, they said. Uncatchable, they said.
Bull-crap, I say.
A Closer Look at the NFL Rulebook
Despite what many have said about the play in question, pass interference is the only penalty that could have been called—not defensive holding and not illegal contact.
In the NFL rulebook, the description of what is and is not defensive holding is pretty straight-forward. It is, literally, any time a defensive player holds onto an offensive player. Illegal contact is much the same—any time a defensive player pushes an offensive one down the field. Frankly, it's one of the few parts of the NFL rulebook that makes perfect sense.
That is, right until one gets to the part on exceptions:
See, holding and illegal contact are both for before the pass is thrown. Often, you'll even hear referees say, "Before the pass..." as they call a holding penalty. That's why. Because the contact occurred as the ball was in the air, it cannot be holding and it cannot be illegal contact.
OK, so pass interference it has to be. So was it?
Section 5 Pass Interference
Article 1 Definition. It is pass interference by either team when any act by a player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders the progress of an eligible receiver’s opportunity to catch the ball. Pass interference can only occur when a forward pass is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage, regardless of whether the pass is legal or illegal, or whether it crosses the line.
Defensive pass interference rules apply from the time the ball is thrown until the ball is touched...
Article 2 Prohibited Acts by both teams while the ball is in the air. Acts that are pass interference include, but are not limited to:
(a) Contact by a player who is not playing the ball that restricts the opponent’s opportunity to make the catch.
(b) Playing through the back of an opponent in an attempt to make a play on the ball.
(c) Grabbing an opponent’s arm(s) in such a manner that restricts his opportunity to catch a pass.
(d) Extending an arm across the body of an opponent, thus restricting his ability to catch a pass, and regardless of whether the player committing such act is playing the ball.
(e) Cutting off the path of an opponent by making contact with him, without playing the ball.
(f) Hooking an opponent in an attempt to get to the ball in such a manner that it causes the opponent’s body to turn prior to the ball arriving.
(g) Initiating contact with an opponent by shoving or pushing off, thus creating a separation in an attempt to catch a pass.
The bolded emphasis is mine, because those are all acts that Kuechly did in roughly two seconds of defending the last-second pass from Brady. He contacted Gronkowski, ran him off the ball, hugged his arms and his body and stood in the way of any possible return to the ball Gronkowski may have had.
The referees, it seems, agreed with me—at least for a moment.
After the aforementioned discussion, it was the next article that the referees decided mattered most. Under "Permissible Acts," the rulebook states this: "Contact that would normally be considered pass interference, but the pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players..."
This, too, is common knowledge to most NFL fans. Pass interference isn't allowable if the pass isn't catchable. A quarterback cannot simply heave the ball 10 yards out of bounds and expect to get the call. Upon conferring, the refs didn't feel as if Gronkowski had a legitimate shot at the ball with or without the interference.
They couldn't be more incorrect.
Frame-By-Frame Account of How Gronkowski Got Jobbed
If one looks at a snapshot of the final play as the ball is intercepted, it's pretty easy to see what the ref did—Gronkowski near the back of the end zone as Lester caught the ball near the front of the end zone:
OK, fair enough. Game over, right? Wrong.
It's only "game over" if one wasn't actually watching the play just a second earlier. Contact was not made in the back of the end zone, it was made right about where the ball was thrown. Don't believe me? Check it out:
That's just hand-fighting, though. Let's pull the camera angle back a little bit and see if we can catch a little more egregious contact with the ball in the air:
Yep, there it is.
Let's pretend, for a moment, that no defenders are there. What does Gronkowski do? He tracks the ball and works back to it, catching it right where Lester ends up with it. What about a "what if" with no interference? In that scenario, Gronkowski is still tracking toward the back of the end zone but would still easily be in a position to make a back-shoulder catch and win the game.
It is the contact with the ball in the air—literally the definition of pass interference—that runs Gronkowski off the ball and impedes his progress back to it. Can one make the argument that Gronkowski's lack of effort back to the ball helped the referees make their final decision? Sure, but nowhere in the rulebook does that even begin to matter.
Subjectively, it's easy to surmise that from where Gronkowski ended up, he might not have caught the pass.
Objectively, Kuechly committed pass interference as the ball was in the air. That having happened, your subjective opinion (and the referees') should not have mattered. This wasn't an "uncatchable" ball in the third row of the bleachers. This was a ball that was rendered uncatchable by the interference of the defender—you know, the act that is prohibited in the rulebook section quoted above.
Taking one more step back, even going that far down the logical pathway is somewhat disingenuous to the discussion. The fact of the matter is, Gronkowski—one of the NFL's premier athletes and easily one of the two best tight ends—could have caught the ball.
End zones are 10 yards deep. Even looking at the final moment of the play—as Lester intercepts the ball—Gronkowski is only, at most, three or four yards away from the ball. That's anywhere from nine to 12 feet. Gronkowski, at 6'6", covers a good deal of that.
When one considers his arm length—34 1/4 inches—it's clear that even with just planting his foot in the ground and stretching, Gronkowski could have covered nine feet easily. Following the trajectory of the ball down to the ground, it's likely a touchdown.
Of course, in that instance, maybe Lester still undercuts the ball and intercepts it, but at least Gronkowski is permitted to make the effort—again, what the rule is supposed to ensure he is able to do.
That scenario is just falling over at the last possible second from where Gronkowski was in the last moments of the play. Gronkowski is a fantastic athlete. Check out this ESPN Sport Science clip for a technical explanation of some of the amazing things he can do:
If Kuechly isn't there or does not intentionally impede his path back to the ball, Gronkowski has the ability to change direction in a split second (as seen in the video) and has footwork almost unparalleled for a man his size. Maybe that pass is "uncatchable" in your local Pop Warner league, but it's not uncatchable for an NFL tight end—certainly not Gronkowski.
Without the interference, there's little legitimate reason to believe Gronkowski wouldn't have had a good chance at catching that pass. Instead, the referees made the wrong call and robbed America of one final play to cap an otherwise perfect night of football.