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The NFL’s potential new pass interference rule should work fine, just like in college football

The spot foul might be getting scrapped for college’s 15-yard foul.

CFP National Championship presented by AT&T - Alabama v Georgia Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

The NFL’s looking into how it adjudicates pass interference.

The change being kicked around is pretty simple. Instead of giving the offense the ball at the spot of the foul, which could be 60 yards or more, this would make it more like the college game.

The competition committee meets around the time of the NFL Combine for all prospective rules changes and takes them to the 32 owners during the league meeting at the end of March. The pass interference rule looks like it’s going to be one of those proposals.

There’s a “slippery slope” argument to discuss here.

You’ll see this, or versions of it from various people: “If you change the rule, won’t defensive backs just tackle wideouts to limit the damage on a vertical route?”

That does happen in college without the spot foul punishment, but nowhere near as often as that doomsday scenario suggests. It usually occurs on plays like this, in which an Alabama player basically tackled a Mississippi State player in the end zone on a Hail Mary attempt.

Under the NFL’s currently active rule, the ball would’ve ended up on the doorstep of the end zone, instead it was a 15-yard penalty that made a long Hail Mary a slightly shorter one. In this particular case, a spot foul would’ve been fairer.

Hail Marys aren’t exactly the best thing to point to in defense of the spot foul anyway, even in the NFL.

At the end of Super Bowl 52, Rob Gronkowski had at least some claim to pass interference on the game’s final play.

But FOX’s Mike Pereira — formerly the supervisor of all NFL officials — said that pretty much anything goes on Hail Marys, and it has to be really egregious to call it.

“Hail Mary, it’s survival of the fittest,” Pereira said. “So if everybody’s there, everybody goes up you can play Gronk’s back, you can play through his side, you can play through him through the front.”

The one scenario Pereira said isn’t OK is basically what happened in that Alabama GIF above.

The concern about DBs getting away with mid-route tackling is not a particularly new argument.

The NCAA did away with the long-bomb spot foul in 1984, and at the time, the same argument was being posed.


Texas A&M coach Jackie Sherrill likes the basic rule, but said it should be amended to protect a receiver against a flagrant down-field violation since he, and any other coach “will give up the 15-yard penalty and the first down rather than a 60-yard penalty and a first down.”

A pretty easy safeguard is to dangle the tag of an additional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty if a defensive player really does tackle a player who had a clear path to the end zone.

While you’ll see stories like West Virginia drawing 10 defensive pass interferences in a three-game span with its high-octane offense, there’s little to suggest intentional pass interference is a widespread defensive strategy in college football.

There are other caveats here though.

If the rule does change, will the difference in DB skill level be a factor?

Players are wide-open far less frequently in the NFL, and while players still get a step or two and catch bombs, there are far more plays in which defensive backs get lost and have to desperately try to catch up with a receiver and locate the ball on the fly. In those cases, defensive backs will be coached to tackle their receivers and take the 15-yard penalty. It won’t happen every time, but this will happen frequently enough that we’ll all be longing for the old pass interference rules before long.

If the new foul gets enacted in the NFL, that’s something to observe.

So what’s good about limiting pass interference to just 15 yards?

It removes the assumption that the receiver would’ve caught the ball. Even NFL WRs don’t pull in every catch, especially contested ones, which by definition includes all plays with potential pass interference calls. If a long throw to a tightly covered receiver is 50-50 at best for the offense, why give the offense 45 yards just because the DB had a little bit more of the WR’s jersey than vice versa?

It would also lessen one WR advantage, since offensive pass interference in the NFL only costs the offense 10 yards.

This is unlikely to affect all that many plays at the NFL level anyway.

Between 2009-17, the NFL had 0.46 penalties per game that netted more than 15 yards, according to play-by-play analysis by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly.

This is, among other things, part of a small trend by the NFL to become more like college football.

The wide-open spread option offense part was more entertaining, but this one should work fine too.

Next up: college overtime rules?