New Pass Interference Rule Already Causing Problems, Due to Get Worse

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystAugust 17, 2019

LANDOVER, MD - AUGUST 15: Kelvin Harmon #13 of the Washington Redskins was called for offensive pass interference on this play against Jordan Brown #26 of the Cincinnati Bengals during the second half of a preseason game at FedExField on August 15, 2019 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

After the unprecedented miscarriage of justice that was the non-call on Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman's blatant pass interference on New Orleans Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis in last year's NFC Championship Game, fans, players and coaches alike united in their demand that something be done to ensure that such a brutal non-call by the officials never happens again.

They got their wish. At the NFL owners meetings in March, reviews of pass interference penalties (and non-calls) were approved by a 31-1 vote. Only the Cincinnati Bengals voted against the measure.

However, in their zeal to right a wrong, all the NFL's teams did was commit another one. Through two weeks of the preseason, reviews of pass interference have shown to be a confusingly subjective mess. There has already been at least one blatantly wrong call that was allowed to stand after review—exactly the sort of thing this new rule was supposed to prevent.

Pandora's box has been opened. The genie's out of the bottle. Insert other ominous metaphors here. If this carries over into the regular season and (heaven forbid) the playoffs, come next March's meetings, the league's owners won't be patting themselves on the back for making things better.

They'll be wondering how they managed to make them worse.

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 10: Back judge Todd Prukop #30, side judge Boris Cheek #41 and line judge Dana McKenzie #8 during their NFL preseason game at RingCentral Coliseum on August 10, 2019 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Image
Robert Reiners/Getty Images

Per NFL Football Operations, here are the criteria for reversing a pass interference call, or making one when it wasn't originally called:

"The replay official will stop the game after the two-minute warning of each half and during OT. When there is 'clear and obvious visual evidence' that a pass interference foul may or may not have occurred, based on viewing the play live or any initial replays, a stoppage will occur under stricter criteria than for other reviewable plays to prevent excessive game stoppages.

"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. This is wholly dependent on video angles shown by broadcast networks.

"By rule, pass interference requires an act that 'significantly hinders' an opponent's opportunity to make a play on the ball. All passing plays will be subject to review for pass interference. The 'Hail Mary' play will be reviewed in replay consistent with the guidelines for officiating the play on the field."

Confused? Join the club. As Dave Birkett wrote for the Detroit Free Press, part of the reason we're seeing so many challenges regarding pass interference in the preseason is that coaches like the Detroit Lions' Matt Patricia are trying to figure out how the new rule will be enforced.

"I think a lot of us, coaching wise, we're just trying to figure out how this is all going to be officiated," Patricia said. "So any opportunity I thought that would come up in the game where maybe (it) would be an opportunity for them to take a look at it and see how they officiate it, I wanted to try to get that situation."

Early on, it appeared the bar to clear for overturning a call would be a high one. There were 15 challenges of pass interference calls over the first 17 games of the preseason. Just one was overturned.

However, it didn't take long to see that start to shift. In Thursday's game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson won a reversal on a non-call in the third quarter.

NFL Officiating @NFLOfficiating

“In #PHIvsJAX, there was clear and obvious visual evidence that the defender significantly hinders the receiver’s opportunity to make a play on the ball.” -AL https://t.co/81KgIUNPKw

Now, obviously Jags corner Josh Robinson grabs the receiver, enough that an argument can be made a flag should have been thrown. But it's hardly a slam dunk that he "significantly hindered his opponent's opportunity to make a play on the ball."

In other words, had the flag been thrown and there been a review, an argument can be made for the call standing. But reversing that decision seems to indicate that either the bar isn't as high as we thought, or that it's moving.

Neither thought inspires the warm and fuzzies.

And that wasn't close to the worst of what we saw Thursday.

Twice during the game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins, rookie wideout Kelvin Harmon wound up on the wrong side of a pass interference challenge. One was called OPI and then upheld, and another was ruled OPI after a non-call. The first one was, um…

Just look at it.

Yahoo Sports NFL @YahooSportsNFL

Someone... Anyone... PLEASE explain how this is offensive pass interference 🤯 #CINvsWAS | #HTTR https://t.co/RGPnZN2WKo

I can't wait for the explanation of how you can hinder a defender from making a play on a ball he isn't looking at even a little.

Per Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk, Redskins coach Jay Gruden can't wait either.

"I need an explanation for that one. I don't know. All I know is I want Kelvin Harmon to do that every time the ball is in the air. That's why we drafted him because he's aggressive when the ball in the air. If he can't do what he did in this game then I don't know what he can do. I'm going to continue to coach Kelvin Harmon to go up and go get the ball like he did tonight and good things will happen for him. We'll get the explanation, hopefully."

He's right to be perturbed. Plays like this are supposed to be the entire reason pass interference reviews exist. They provide the opportunity to reverse a blatantly incorrect decision by the officials.

Except it didn't happen that way.

The play stood. Because this is better than what happened in New Orleans somehow.

In fairness, it's the preseason. The league and its officials are still feeling their way through how to interpret and enforce the rule. But right now it appears to be an exercise in subjectivity. If that continues into games that count (and quite possibly even if it doesn't), you know what's going to happen?

Coaches are going to start challenging any long pass or potentially game-swinging play in the hopes the review will go their way. Whether or not they believe pass interference occurred will be completely irrelevant. It will become about strategy more than fairness.

Never mind that unless the criteria for reversing a call (or non-call) becomes a lot more concrete, fan outrage isn't going to dissipate. It will grow, because now the officials will be getting a second bite at the apple and still missing calls.

You think last year was bad? Wait until a blown pass interference review in the playoffs. It may actually break Twitter.

What happened in New Orleans last January was inexcusable. I won't argue that it cost the Saints a chance to play in the Super Bowl. A non-call that egregious should never, ever happen.

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - AUGUST 08:  Referees meet in the second quarter during a preseason game between the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on August 08, 2019 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

But the NFL's knee-jerk overreaction to that mishap and the hurried installation of a rule that could have a massive impact isn't going to improve the game. All it's going to do is bring the catch rule to pass interference—and bringing the catch rule to anything is never good.

The league's owners undoubtedly thought they were doing the right thing back in March. Early returns indicate otherwise.

And we now apparently live in a world where the Cincinnati Bengals are the last bastion of logic and reason.

What a headache.