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NFL Puts the Worms Back in the Can

The NFL did away with the pass interference replay review last week, and it comes one year too late. Reviewing pass interference was destine to fail from the start because the motivation for instituting it was absolutely wrong.

We all know the story. Late in the 4th quarter of the 2018 NFC Championship Game, the referees missed an obvious pass interference call that would have given the New Orleans Saints the game, and a trip to the Super Bowl. It was a clearly egregious missed call, at the most crucial time, in one of the biggest games of the season. In short, it was an embarrassment for the league. There was an immediate and deafening outcry to do something about this error. The NFL knee jerked with a response that created more problems, more contention, and even more missed calls.

There are reasons why some calls are designated as reviewable, and others are not reviewable. The clear-cut calls are designated reviewable, in or out of bounds, touchdown or no touchdown, catch or no catch (which has been more clearly defined recently thus making for better reviews). Penalties are not reviewable, because there is too much judgement in real time to expose these calls to slow motion replay. Was the player’s foot in or out? Is clear cut. Was the player holding? Is a judgement.

Pass interference has always been a potentially contentious call, because, it is a judgement call, and thus subjective. PI has never been called by the book. There has always been an element of “let them play”, acceptable contact before the ball arrives. But the missed call in the Saints game was so obvious, so clear cut that people in and out of the league could not understand why this one obvious missed call could not be fixed?

Judgement calls in real time are murky, and when put under the light of slow-motion replay becomes even murkier. So, trying to fix this one egregious miss, opens a can of worms that creates more problems than fixes.

So why did the NFL go down the road of pass interference replay? Easy, to save face. Instead of admitting that the referees made a mistake and missed the call, and pointing out the fact that there are other missed calls throughout the course of the game and season, and that they all essentially even out in the end. They decided to show the fans that they were going to “fix” the problem. But many times, the cure is a lot worse than the illness. So, the 2019 season was the NFL’s attempt to prove that the live refs even with their missed calls are better than review. What they really proved was what we already knew, reviewing penalties creates more problems than solves, and the short-term fixes never outweigh the long-term losses.

The bigger problem with pass interference is the fact that DPI is an automatic spot foul, thus making the punishment many times too harsh for the foul committed and not equally meted out between OPI and DPI. Many times, pass interference is called on a deep pass against a defender who did interfere, but it was unintentional and minor. Being a spot foul, the defense is penalized 50 yards for a tic-tac foul. The punishment clearly does not fit the crime. But if the offensive player, intentionally and blatantly pushes off, he is only penalized 10 yards max, and they replay the down. The defense is clearly at a disadvantage in this type of call. The NFL would do better to make the penalty for DPI more fitting the level of the infractions. Have an incidental DPI which is 10 yards and an automatic 1st down, and a blatant DPI where the defender intentionally or blatantly interferes with the receiver preventing a big play which would be a spot foul.

So, instead of expanding instant replay to save face because of one obviously missed pass interference call that everyone knew would be a disaster, they should make the penalty for pass interference more equitable and more fitting the severity of the foul committed.

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