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The NFL’s pass interference challenge is looking worse every week

In hindsight, the NFL should’ve kept its hands off the replay rules for pass interference.

NFL: NOV 17 Texans at Ravens Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Pass interference isn’t exactly a new problem in the NFL. The reality is that all football officiating is rough and has been for a long time. That probably won’t change.

So on the surface, it makes sense to double-check pass interference calls to get them right. That’s why — after an especially egregious officiating miss cost the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl — the NFL changed its replay rules to make pass interference reviewable.

Immediately, there was hand-wringing. What are the downsides of allowing a penalty to be reviewed? Did the NFL just open Pandora’s box and clear the way for all penalties to eventually become reviewable? Will there be a ton of additional replay reviews that drag out games?

The league dodged those concerns by making pass interference a borderline impossible play to overturn. Unsurprisingly, that strategy has backfired spectacularly.

The NFL saved its officials from a great deal of criticism by fixing its flawed and broken catch rule in 2018. One year later, the league made pass interference much worse, and now officials are taking heat for that more than ever.

Close plays are getting put under the microscope now

NFL officials didn’t need another way to get put on blast each week. There was already plenty of that. Pass interference replay reviews have managed to do that, though.

Take this 42-yard reception in Week 5 by Saints receiver Michael Thomas, for example:

A pretty nice catch, right? In any other season, the game moves on to the next play. That bit of separation Thomas got would be chalked up to some savvy hand fighting. Not in 2019, however.

The Buccaneers challenged the play in hopes that they’d get an offensive pass interference call. Replay showed Tampa Bay had a really good case.

The pushoff against cornerback Vernon Hargreaves’ chest gave Thomas about two yards of separation. That was more than enough to give Teddy Bridgewater a window for a huge play down the sideline. The replay allowed the officials to go back and look at the shove they clearly missed.

But nope, the play stood as called. That should be a pass interference call, but perhaps that conclusion comes because we’re watching it in slow motion.

Look closely enough at every play and you can probably find a penalty somewhere — especially when it’s slowed down and dissected. Still, the NFL could do a better job of determining what should and shouldn’t be called interference.

The rare cases of an overturn haven’t always made sense

The NFL wants clear and obvious cases of pass interference to get fixed. This throw to Giants receiver Golden Tate across the middle of the field would sure seem to qualify. Instead it stood as a no-call, despite Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones pinning one of Tate’s arms down.

That’s been the norm. The officials either call a phantom pass interference or miss a penalty altogether. Then, when the NFL’s replay review office in New York, led by Alberto Riveron, is presented with the chance to make it right, the play isn’t overturned. According to ESPN, the rate for getting a call reversed has hovered around five percent in 2019.

What’s especially confusing is that some of the rare plays that were actually overturned don’t look that much different than plays that stood.

Is that pass interference on the Steelers? It looks like it. But it wasn’t flagged initially, so the NFL’s lofty standard for an overturn would lead you to believe it would be upheld. Instead, it was reversed.

The same could probably be said for a throw to Christian Kirk that was initially a no-call, and then changed to pass interference after a review.

Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury even admitted he was “shocked” he didn’t lose the challenge.

There are also moments when it seems like NFL officials have forgotten what pass interference looks like, altogether.

Officials have opened themselves up to even more criticism with their inconsistent use of replay. They’ve also managed to lose some credibility along the way.

The NFL isn’t aiming to get calls right

There’s no other logical conclusion to make about pass interference replays. The NFL can’t possibly be making an honest effort to determine if interference occurred.

If that was the goal, then Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey clearly should’ve been flagged in Week 11 for tackling Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the end zone before the ball arrived.

The NFL appears more interested in upholding its precedent that a play must be overwhelmingly obvious to be overturned. In the words of Broncos coach Vic Fangio, it has to be a “five-car pileup.”

While that’s not even close to the same as trying to call plays correctly, there’s a logic to that.

Imagine how many pass interference replays there would be if coaches knew they had a good chance at winning the challenges. There was always going to be a high standard for pass interference reviews, but it’s still surprising just how difficult it’s been to get a call changed. Coaches are winning less than five percent of the time and still trying every week.

Saving timeouts would probably be the wiser choice, but it’s awfully hard to pass on a chance at getting or negating a huge chunk of yardage. Coaches are in a no-win situation, choosing between the likely scenario of losing a timeout, or opting to let a clear mistake by the officials go unchallenged.

By refusing to make calls right, refs are putting coaches in a bad spot and they’re losing the trust of everyone — including the players.

That’s not good for anyone, but there’s no easy solution.

Going back to the old rules won’t be easy

Reviewing pass interference is a temporary rule change that can become a full-time addition to the rulebook in 2020. Considering the mess it’s making, that idea sounds ill-advised.

The best and most likely plan of action is to shelve the rule after the 2019 season.

But what happens the next time a bad pass interference call costs a team in a big moment? Hell, even the relatively inconsequential missed calls are going to raise “woulda, coulda, shoulda” talk about the sudden inability to challenge.

In hindsight, the NFL would’ve been better off keeping the replay rules the same. But the genie can’t be put back in the bottle and the league has to deal with the mess it created.