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The NFL’s pass interference penalty is broken - here’s how to fix it.

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We’ll go ahead and take care of this for the NFL.

NFL: NFC Championship Game-Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL pass interference rules have been a source of player and fan consternation for years. I’m old enough to remember when pass interference was rarely called; reserved for egregious instances where every one agreed the defender interfered with the receiver.

Back then borderline interference calls always went to the defender and that was that and everyone kind of accepted it. But in the never-ending push for more offense the league liberalized the rule and over time many borderline calls started going the way of the receiver.

This led to where we were up until January 20th of 2019. That’s when the referees, with the game on the line, somehow ruled this not to be pass interference:

One could argue this was the most blatant, impactful blown call in NFL history. Had the call been made the Saints need only let the clock run out and then kick what would have been a 23-yard field goal to advance to the Super Bowl. The odds of the Saints winning would have been something like 98%.

In short, the blown pass interference call gave the Los Angeles Rams an undeserved spot in Super Bowl LIII while denying the New Orleans Saints a deserved spot in that Super Bowl.

The Rams-Saints conference championship game had been an classic NFL playoff game up until the blown call. The Rams had overcome an early 13-point deficit. The teams combined for nearly 700 yards of offense and the fourth quarter was a tense, back-and-forth affair that had fans glued to their television sets.

But no one remembers that, they only remember the blown call the cost the Saints a shot at the Super Bowl. Needless to say, the NFL powers-that-be don’t want that to happen. So at the league’s spring meetings they decided to make pass interference a reviewable call.

This will not work out well. You know how a catch can be reviewed? And how in many instances even after review there’s still debate on whether it was a catch or not? And how many of the delays and stoppages in play result not in a definitive answer but just further debate? Yeah, expect a lot of that from this new ability to review pass interference.

Here’s how I expect pass interference reviews to play out:

I could be wrong, but I’m fairly certain that fans will be no more satisfied by the introduction of replay than they were before. So, what to do?

Well, there’s no perfect solution, but there are two things the NFL could do to make things better.

Pass Interference and Blatant Pass Interference

I have long believed the simplest solution to the pass interference conundrum is to create two different penalties:

  1. Pass Interference - any situation where a defender puts his hands on a receiver preventing the receiver from making an unrestricted attempt at the catch, but not a clear, blatant act of interference. I would suggest 65% or so of pass interference calls fall under this category. The penalty would not be ball placed at the point of the foul but instead a 10-yard penalty and automatic first down.
  2. Blatant Pass Interference - this is the controversial play from the Saints-Rams championship game. This is the play where everyone watching on television recognizes the player was interfered with. “Indisputable” is the word the comes to mind. The penalty would be a first down at the spot of the foul.

This, in my opinion, improves on the single-penalty PI in a couple ways:

  • Only the most blatant infractions result in a spot foul; no more instances of a borderline, questionable call resulting in a 40-yard gain for the offense.
  • Gives officials room for judgement on borderline calls. Instead of a binary option (pass interference or not) officials have three options to choose from

Now, this wouldn’t be perfect. Some blatant pass interference calls would be called regular pass interference and vice versa. Or, a fairly obvious regular pass interference would be missed and no call would be made. Still, three options would result in fewer blatantly bad calls.

But, you say, how does this fix what happened in the Saints-Rams game? The solution is a twist on what the NFL chose: rather than making all pass interference plays reviewable, only blatant pass interference would be reviewable.

Limit Replay to Blatant Pass Interference

Now, coaches could challenge any play for possible pass interference. But when the replay crew judges the review, they can only overturn a blatant PI call. So, for instance, in the Saints game the play could be reviewed, everyone would agree it was blatant PI, the call would be overturned and the game would continue.

If, however, the play was deemed to be regular pass interference - essentially a situation where some would argue there was pass interference but others deemed there not to be - then whatever call was made on the field would stand.

This would accomplish two things:

  • The review becomes much simpler. Either the defender clearly and indisputably committed PI or he did not.
  • There will be far fewer challenges around pass interference. With the way rules are now, if a coach has a challenge in his pocket and it’s the 4th quarter and a borderline PI call comes up, he’s going to throw the flag because why not? Which will then lead to lengthy reviews where officials are trying to determine some nebulous event that no large group of people could ever agree upon. With the revised rule unless the PI is blatant (or very close to blatant) the coach isn’t going to bother.

Again, this isn’t perfect. But the combination of two types of PI calls and review of only blatant calls would be a significant improvement over what existed before or what we’re going to experience in 2019.

Let’s look at some famous, controversial pass interference situations and see how they would play out.

Deion Sanders interferes with Michael Irvin

Video.

This is actually a tough one under these suggested revisions. There’s no doubt Sanders interfered with Irvin; he put his arm across Irvin’s arms preventing Irvin from making an attempt at the ball. Is this, however, blatant pass interference? Well, yes; if there’s “no doubt” Sanders interfered then it’s blatant interference.

Verdict: blatant pass interference.

Giants vs 49ers - 2002 Wild Card Round

Video.

This is an easy one - this is blatant pass interference. Had these suggested rules been in place the Giants would have been awarded the ball at the spot of the foul. Well, that’s what would have happened if the officials hadn’t also erroneously ruled a Giant to be illegally downfield. Had that erroneous call also been made the two penalties would have offset and the Giants would have had another down from the original line of scrimmage. Either way, a significantly improved outcome from the travesty that occurred.

Verdict: blatant pass interference.

Anthony Hitchens pass interference on Brandon Pettigrew

Video.

This is similar to the Sanders/Irvin play in the question isn’t whether it’s pass interference (it is) it’s whether it’s blatant pass interference. Hitchens clearly puts a hand on Pettigrew and pushes him backwards right as Pettigrew is reaching forward for the ball; that’s blatant to me. However, much like the Giants’ example above, there was another penalty on the play as Pettigrew clearly grabs Hitchens’ facemask. However, facemask is not a reviewable penalty so the end result of a challenge would be blatant pass interference.

Verdict: blatant pass interference.