Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was called for two key offensive pass interference penalties in the Patriots' loss to the Broncos on Sunday (one accepted, one declined). After the game, Gronk took to Twitter to voice his displeasure about how he's being "targeted" by the league's referees on this call. Is he right? Is the league going out of their way to call him for this penalty, or has he earned his flags for offensive pass interference? Well, I took a look at all of them, and here's what I found.
First off, a little background -- Gronk has been flagged for offensive pass interference six times this season; five of those calls have been accepted. That's more than 30 teams have been flagged for that penalty this year, and more than any single player accumulated last year in its entirety (four each by Martellus Bennett and Cecil Shorts was the high).
Let's start at the beginning of the season and work to the present.
OPI No. 1: Week 3 vs. Jaguars, 1st Quarter
As you can see below, Gronk is lined up on the bottom of the formation, and runs a simple 13-yard curl route. He creates some separation at the top of his route with a subtle elbow to the defender.
In my opinion, this could've gone either way, but it's borderline as a clear offensive pass interference call. I am generally in favor of "letting the players play" when it comes to hand fighting and things of that nature, and because Gronk didn't extend his arms fully (instead more of an elbow shiver), I wouldn't have objected to this going uncalled. It's certainly no more egregious than things we see on just about every offensive route where you see contact between the receiver and defender. Still, it's close enough to call a wash on this.
Gronk's second OPI, which came in the same game, was way more ticky tack.
No. 2: Week 3 vs. Jaguars, 3rd Quarter
If I'm trying to get into the head of the referee that called this, I'm guessing he thought that Gronk was blocking downfield before the pass was thrown to Dion Lewis.
I just don't see it that way. Looks to me like he's simply hand fighting as he gets into a route upfield, and if anything, he's trying to fight through the press coverage of the defender. He's not latched on with both hands. He's not engaged or trying to seal off the defender. Weak call in my opinion. Now, if those two instances had been the extent of Gronk's offensive pass interference rap sheet this year, this would obviously be a non-story. But he kept racking up penalties.
The entire rule can be read here, but the important point that has come into play with Gronkowski falls under the prohibited acts clause. Section 5, Article 2(g) of the rulebook states that "Initiating contact with an opponent by shoving or pushing off, thus creating a separation in an attempt to catch a pass," is illegal.
This is the part of the rule that Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels referenced in defense of his tight end this week. "The best thing we can do is try to coach Rob based on the way we've been told we can play," McDaniels said. "Rob, very rarely if ever, extends his arms."
Weellllllllllll, that's not entirely accurate.
Offensive Pass Interferences No. 3 and No. 4 against Gronkowski this year are clear arm extensions.
No. 3: Week 8 vs. Dolphins, 2nd Quarter
Here's the play in question.
I mean, I get that you want to allow players to play physical football, but that's a clear two-armed pushoff by Gronk. Legit call.
No. 4: Week 10 vs. Giants, 2nd Quarter
The evidence ...
Again, pretty clear two-handed pushoff in order to create separation in a route at the sticks. Legit call.
Here's another angle on that:
OK, so apart from those two plays, I do think that McDaniels has a point, especially when you see the two instances in which Gronk was flagged this week against the Broncos.
No. 5: Week 12 vs. Broncos, Quarter 2
Here's the first.
Just ... no. No. Not offensive pass interference.
No. 6: Week 12 vs. Broncos, 4th Quarter
Here we go again.
To me, this is super ticky tack as well. Gronk does not initiate the contact, and he subtly creates separation with a shoulder and half-arm-bar move. This is the type of thing you see in dozens of routes in every single game.
"We try to make sure we're not the one that is pushing or shoving, or trying to move the defender in any way that's illegal," said McDaniel. "I think a lot of times the contact is initiated and the question is who is initiating it. We're fortunate to have a guy that is a big athlete and is bigger than the guys that are covering him. Sometimes we feel like contact is made, and because the other guy takes the brunt of it, sometimes we end up getting called for it."
In four of the six occasions that Gronk was flagged, it's either been blatantly wrong or at least petty.
So, the question remains: Are refs targeting Gronk? It seems that way.
The word "targeted" might be a little strong, but the idea that Gronk's actions at the top of his routes have become a point of emphasis for referee crews isn't far fetched.
Is this because teams are complaining about it? Is it because of the recent increase in emphasis on pass interference (on both offense and defense)?
Do referees hate Gronk? (I mean, how could you hate Gronk?)
Whatever the case, I can certainly understand his frustration, and it's something to watch going forward.
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