'Set Up for Failure': Pass Interference Challenge Rule Doing More Harm Than Good

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 15, 2019

Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid talk to referee Shawn Hochuli after a pass-interference call Sunday.
Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid talk to referee Shawn Hochuli after a pass-interference call Sunday.David Eulitt/Getty Images

Are you confused, frustrated and a little angry about how the NFL is handling pass interference challenges? So is just about everyone else! But don't worry: A quick phone call to officiating expert Mike Pereira should straighten things out. 

"I'm so glad that you are calling me to tell me what pass interference is," Pereira joked when Bleacher Report caught up to him.

Uh-oh. If the NFL's former vice president of officiating and television's most respected rules analyst is asking us what's going on with pass interference challenges, then we're all in big trouble.

"Nobody really understands it," Pereira said last week. "I get hammered with questions coming from coaches before the game. But I'm not in charge anymore. I don't know."

It seems as though no one knows.

"I really don't know what pass interference is anymore," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said after a Week 4 loss to the Eagles that was filled with mystifying calls and non-calls.

LaFleur was most flummoxed by a play in which Eagles defender Avonte Maddox appeared to jam his hand into receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling's chin while breaking up a pass along the sideline. There was no flag, either on the field or after LaFleur challenged the play and multiple replays revealed some rather obvious contact by Maddox.

NFL Senior Vice President of Officiating Al Riveron tweeted an explanation during the game:

"It looked clear and obvious to me," LaFleur told reporters after the game, echoing the opinion of just about everyone who watched the replay. "But I'm not the one making those decisions."

Pereira, who was in the broadcast booth for that game, says the ones who are making those replay decisions at league headquarters are purposely applying their own special standard for pass interference. On the field, the penalty is called the same way it has always been. But for replay challenges, the foul must be extremely blatant for it to be called.

The problem is that no one in the NFL has articulated just how high the higher standard really is. That leaves fans, coaches and commentators to play a guessing game as to when to throw the challenge flag and how to interpret what they see.

According to data provided by the NFL, there were 39 stoppages of play across the league for pass interference challenges through Week 5, with seven overturned rulings. Those numbers sound reasonable: about one stoppage per two games (not enough to slow the action too much) and a 17.9 percent overturn rate, which suggests some of the biggest on-field mistakes are getting corrected.

But most of the overturns happened at the start of the season. "In the last two weeks, that level that it has to rise to is getting higher," Pereira said. That means more and more questionable decisions that look like mistakes to the typical fan, coach, analyst or former head of officiating are being upheld.

This year's controversies over pass interference come in the wake of Nickell Robey-Coleman's early hit on TommyLee Lewis during last season's playoffs.
This year's controversies over pass interference come in the wake of Nickell Robey-Coleman's early hit on TommyLee Lewis during last season's playoffs.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The league's message on pass interference challenges appears to be that if the foul is not as blatant as when Nickell Robey-Coleman clobbered Tommylee Lewis in last year's NFC Championship Game, don't bother.

Pereira questioned this approach: "If you're Coach LaFleur in Green Bay, you throw a challenge flag, and everyone in the world, down to 50 drunks in a bar, looks at it and says, 'Yep, that's pass interference.' But then the league says that the ruling on the field stands because it doesn't reach the level of what we saw in New Orleans in the playoffs. 

"If that's the design of this rule, then it's set up for failure."

That may be the dirty secret underlying the failure of the pass interference challenge system: The procedure doesn't work because it was designed to not work, because some powerful forces in the NFL never wanted to implement it in the first place.

"Be careful what you wish for," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said when asked about replay challenges last week on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas. Jones made it clear he was never a fan of the new procedure, even though Cowboys coach Jason Garrett made an "impassioned plea" for replay challenges at the league's annual meetings.

"Replay, in my mind, should be there for a very egregious situation that was just blatantly missed," Jones said. "But to have it on every play and the will of the coach to make those calls and have it done that way is really kind of not as succinct as I'd like to see officiating."

It sounds like some of the league's power players wanted little more than a fail-safe against Rams-Saints-level fiascos. But coaches such as Garrett and the Saints' Sean Payton (a major voice on the league's competition committee) wanted the power to challenge more routine calls. So the league, with its usual foresight, made it look like it was implementing the latter while secretly planning to treat it as the former.

So far, the double standard for pass interference has focused extra attention on each week's worst officiating mistakes. The offensive pass interference penalty against T.Y. Hilton in Week 5 would have been just another bad call—Hilton stood nearly motionless while a defender stepped around him—if a Colts challenge had not stopped the game so the television audience could see the obvious error over and over again. Then the call was upheld, which simply compounded the error.

Officials themselves now seem confused about the pass interference rules. They threw a flag in Sunday's Texans-Chiefs game when tight end Travis Kelce was thrown to the turf on a Patrick Mahomes interception but then picked it up after determining (incorrectly) that Kelce wasn't the intended receiver. Referee Shawn Hochuli announced on the field that there was "potentially" defensive holding on the play but did not call that foul. And defensive holding cannot be officiated by a replay challenge, no matter how blatant it might be, because them's the rules.

There also appears to be more uncalled defensive pass interference this season, which may be an inevitable result of the double standard and of Riveron's posting official videos of defenders shoving receivers and declaring "this is fine." Meanwhile, coaches are becoming reluctant to throw the challenge flag and risk a timeout on a play that has become increasingly unlikely to be overturned. By Bleacher Report's unofficial count, there were just four coach's challenges on pass interference in Week 6, entering Monday night. The coaches lost all four of them.

An impossibly high standard. Lots of loopholes. Almost purposeful miscommunication of intent. A system so ineffective that people hesitate to use it. The new pass interference rules may not have been designed to fail, but the NFL could not have done a better job if they were.

Pereira thinks the rule can be fixed by eliminating the mysterious "high bar" for an egregious foul. If a flag is thrown on the field, treat it like any replay challenge: There must be clear and obvious evidence to overturn the foul. But if the coach challenges an uncalled foul, the league should judge pass interference the same way it is judged on the field—not against some invisible, inexplicable higher standard. "That way, the 50 drunks at the bar get to be right," he joked.

The NFL can't afford to wait until next offseason to implement that sort of change. The league could be setting itself up for catastrophe if it waits too long to bring clarity to the system. Television analysts such as Pat McAfee are questioning Riveron's judgment and leadership. Fans are starting to feel gaslit by officials whose decisions seem almost divorced from reality. And not everyone in the NFL wants to see the system fail by design. "Why go through this huge exercise if the league's decided nothing's going to change?" an anonymous general manager kvetched to Peter King of NBC Sports.

Worst of all, the rule the NFL implemented to prevent catastrophes like the blown call in last year's NFC Championship Game could create an even bigger catastrophe when a similar mistake is reviewed but not overturned, or not reviewed because a coach doesn't trust the system, or gets reviewed but slips through a weird crack in the system like the Kelce no-call.

"If we are still dealing with this in Week 17 when a team needs to win to get in the playoffs, the smoke will turn into fire," Pereira warns. "And if it happens in the Super Bowl, the fire will turn into a bonfire. So I think there is a danger down the road to the way this rule is being approached."

Let's hope the NFL fixes this error soon, before a blown call—and a useless-by-design system for possibly overturning that bad call—ruins the season.

                     

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

Related

    Report: Kap to Work Out for NFL Teams

    Which team would be the best fit?

    NFL logo
    NFL

    Report: Kap to Work Out for NFL Teams

    Adam Wells
    via Bleacher Report

    New 'Gridiron Heights' 🚨

    The Bosa brothers are terrorizing the league, but the Watt bros aren't having it 💪🎥

    NFL logo
    NFL

    New 'Gridiron Heights' 🚨

    Adam Wells
    via Bleacher Report

    Clarifying Whether Geno Called Heads or Tails in MNF

    NFL logo
    NFL

    Clarifying Whether Geno Called Heads or Tails in MNF

    Shanna McCarriston
    via CBSSports.com

    New NFL Power Rankings 📈📉

    No shortage of shake-ups for Week 11

    NFL logo
    NFL

    New NFL Power Rankings 📈📉

    NFL Staff
    via Bleacher Report