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Ref Jam: How to fix pass interference penalties

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Several games with playoff implications have hinged on critical pass interference penalties, or refs missing the call. There's a way to improve how the NFL and its officials handle the call.

Streeter Lecka

It seems like NFL referees are screwing up pass interference calls more and more thee days, but that's also the outlook that we tend to take on pretty much anything that we don't like in America. In reality, the stakes are just higher and we have more cameras, so we just get to talk more about it when it does happen.

In Monday night's game between the Lions and the Ravens there were a couple noteworthy questionable PI calls that undoubtedly swung the tide of the game in Baltimore's favor. Let's take a look as Matt Stafford throws a deep pass intended for Kris Durham who has a step on Lardarius Webb in the end zone.


Webb reached out and pretty obviously held Durham's left arm to prevent him from making the catch. What should have been a touchdown or at worst, a first-and-goal from the one yard line turned into fourth-and-nine, and a field goal from David Akers. That four point swing ended up being the difference between winning and losing for the Lions.

Here's another example from earlier this year as the New England Patriots were driving for the win with under a minute remaining against the Browns:


You can see Boyce try to stiff-arm McFadeen for separation, and as the ball approaches you can see that the contact is minimal. The Pats got this call and were awarded first-and-goal from the one, which they easily converted into a Danny Amendola touchdown and a Patriots win.

Now one that went against the Pats, from their Monday Night Football loss to the Panthers:


The game ended with a flag thrown for pass interference. Then the referee decided to pick it up since the ball was "uncatchable."

Three plays that undoubtedly changed the outcomes of the games and the shape of the playoff picture. Every time we see something like this we hear Jon Gruden or Tom Jackson complaining about how we need to do something to get these calls right. It's never going to be perfect, but let's take a look at some of the more realistic options for what could be done.

Option #1: Make pass interference a reviewable penalty

This seems to be the most frequent solution that we hear. Give coaches an extra replay challenge that would allow the refs to take another look in slow-motion at what they think they saw. At first glance this seems like it could be a decent proposal: the game happens so quickly that it's unrealistic to expect that the referees can look at every flailing limb on every athlete at every second. If you made PI a reviewable play, they would have a chance to look under the hood and see that, yes, clearly Lardarius Webb illegally prevented Durham from making that catch.

The good: Gives announcers a chance to say "get it right" more frequently. The game takes place at such a high speed that no matter how much training the refs get, they're still going to miss a ton of calls. People who complain about the quality of officiating on these bang-bang plays might as well be complaining about the speed of the game in general. Replay has been a huge addition for the NFL and it has dramatically increased the ref's ability to do their jobs as their jobs have gotten harder.

The bad: Pass interference, by nature is a judgement call. Every tiny bit of contact is not PI. If a cornerback is making a realistic attempt to catch the ball, the ref won't call him for interfering if he's jockeying for position with the WR. It would be like using instant replay to review a charge/blocking call in basketball. The fact that it's been weeks since the Pats/Panthers game, and we're still not sure about the call should tell you what you need to know about how replay would affect the call. Plus, you're going to have every conspiracy theorist accusing the NFL of fixing the games if their officials are allowed to literally cloak themselves in a secret hood to determine the correct call. There are simply too many shades of gray in PI to make it a reviewable penalty.

Option #2: Make pass interference a 15-yard penalty instead of a spot foul

First, we need to understand why it's a spot foul to begin with. Like offensive holding, intentional grounding, or blocks in the back, the penalty is a spot foul because the advantage gained has to do directly with where the infraction took place. If you've got a receiver in the end zone and he's tackled by a cornerback before the ball arrives, well then you've got a pretty good case that the penalty prevented a touchdown, and the most fair thing to do would be to give the offense the ball at the one.

However, the spot foul for pass interference has become another exploitable part of an offensive gameplan instead of a rule enforced to discourage cheating. The Ravens took full advantage of this on Monday, throwing deep lob passes towards the sidelines, and waiting for the Lions to contact their receivers. A 40-yard penalty for PI is just as good as a completed pass, but by throwing the ball out there a smart quarterback will increase their chances of a productive play.

The good: By making the call a 15-yard penalty, like it is in college football, it limits the downside to a ref making a bad call, but still makes it a decent chunk of yardage and a first down.

The bad: This is unlikely to happen since the NFL has shown a desire to increase scoring at any cost and those freebie first-and-goal from the one scenarios are a goldmine of points.Smart defenders would also use this to their advantage when they know they're beat on a deep pass.

Option #3: Make pass interference a 15-yard penalty, with exceptions, and reviewable

The best of both worlds. Any pass interference call would be an automatic 15-yard penalty, except if a receiver is in an obvious position to score a touchdown and there was intent on the part of the defender.

The idea that is baked into the current rule that awards a spot foul is the notion that the offensive player would have caught the ball were it not for a defensive player cheating, and this is not the case on most jump balls (unless you have Alshon Jeffery.) By taking away the spot foul for a forty yard pass with incidental contact, it limits the offense's ability to exploit what would have been a difficult completion, while still keeping a 15-yard defensive penalty as a deterrent.

In the case of a "professional foul," where a CB intentionally holds a WR and prevents a touchdown, the referee would have the option to award a spot foul since the play clearly prevented a touchdown opportunity. A coach would then be able to appeal that call if he feels that it wasn't an intentional foul.

College football has shown us that reviewing degrees of penalties can work well for reviewing helmet-to-helmet ejections Having both options would keep the original reason for making it a spot foul to begin with. Soccer does this as well with yellow and red cards for the same infraction depending on the situation.

The good: If a receiver is open on a fade route and the cornerback dives and intentionally trips him up, the refs can award a spot foul at their discretion. No more 50-yard penalties for incidental contact.

The bad: Still leaves a lot to the the referee's discretion and creates another thing for us to argue about after the fact. Makes the ruling more complicated than it has to be.

Option #4: Do nothing.

The good: It's easier.

The bad: We continue to deal with this:


Out of the choices I've listed, option number three seems like the fairest application of the rule. But given the league's premium on offense it would be unlikely to see a new rule put into place for the sake of the defense.

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