Football Zebras
2019 Rule ChangesWhat to expect when you are expecting a pass interference call reversal

What to expect when you are expecting a pass interference call reversal

It has been hashed over, and rehashed over. The dust finally settled. It was opening Pandora’s box. It was tested in the preseason. (Mistakes were made.) The regular season is here, and the big question is how pass interference will be officiated now that it is subject to review.

The Miscall Heard Round the World notwithstanding, it will be handled on the field pretty much the same as it always has.

1. ‘Clear and obvious’ standard

This is the overarching mantra of replay. Replay does not go in to find something to reverse, rather the standard operating procedure is to assume that the call on the field is correct, and use clear and obvious evidence to overturn. That means that whatever ruling is made on the field, replay will not reofficiate the play. That’s not to say this operates in a bubble; the replay hub in New York will talk to the covering officials before looking at the video in order to understand what was called and if there are any factors that enter the review.

In short, replay is the claw end of the hammer, not the hammer.

In preseason, coaches threw more challenge flags that they would during the regular season so that they could test the contours of pass interference reviews. What happened is, centralized replay never overruled a PI flag, and in a small number of cases, it tacked on a flag when there was none. 

  Reviews Reversal percent
Pass interference called on the field 0 / 15 0%
Pass interference not called on the field 7 / 39 18%
TOTAL 7 / 54 13%

(Note that one of the 7 reversals was determined afterwards to have been in error, and would have ruled “stands.”)

Also of note, to place a defensive pass interference flag down, replay must have clear and obvious evidence that the pass was in the air. If the camera angles do not show that the ball is in the air (and multiple angles can be looked at to establish this fact) to the clear and obvious standard, then replay cannot assess a defensive pass interference foul. To that end, a controversial pass interference call in preseason that stood as called because the entire route was not shown by TV, where the relevant contact occurred.

2. ‘Significantly hinders’ standard

It is pass interference by either team when any act by a player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders an eligible player’s opportunity to catch the ball.

This is the standard enshrined in Rule 8-5-1 and something that you will hear repeatedly throughout the season. This can be difficult to assess in replay, because slow-motion replays can distort one’s perspective on how significant an act appears. What wound up being reversed in preseason reviews were situations where the covering officials were straightlined from seeing the restriction, or a tandem official was still keyed on another receiver in the area. These are the types that in previous seasons objective observers would say the player “got away with one” because it was subtle but still significant restriction. 

Contact is going to be allowed when assessing a play, but by and large, these situations are going to be ruled “stands” — either to pick up or put down a pass interference flag. During the preseason officials clinic, senior vice-president of officiating Al Riveron acknowledged that a fair amount of contact would be allowed in review without changing the call, because replay will not reofficiate the play.

It is not likely that there will be many flag pickups in replay, if any at all. In this case, replay will review the play to determine that the offending player was not significantly hindering the opponent. Occasionally, these pickups occur on the field, where another covering official weighs in on their angle. Because the starting point for replay is that the calling official is right until proven otherwise, proving the negative (with the clear and obvious standard) is going to be difficult. Cases where there is inadvertent or even no contact, or when a receiver trips on his own, replay would overturn, but anything more than that, and they will default to the judgment of hindrance made on the field.

3. Combination penalties

One thing that is not typically seen is combination penalties for essentially the same act. A defender that engages in contact with the receiver after the 5-yard chuck zone prior to the pass is guilty of defensive holding. If he rides that contact through to when the ball is in the air, this essentially converts to defensive pass interference. Now, this will not be just one foul call for the more severe penalty, but officials are being told in some cases they should call both fouls. It is one change that is being made on the field in reaction to the pass interference replay rule.

The DH + DPI combination foul would work this way: both fouls would be called, and the offense would decline the DH and enforce the DPI. However, the defense could challenge the DPI, saying that the pass was not yet in the air. That’s not to say there was no contact, but the defensive coach is trying to get rid of a spot foul. If the DPI is overturned, the DH foul would remain and would then be enforced. Without calling that second foul, replay could not assess a DH flag no matter how clear and obvious the prepass contact might be. Defensive holding is not a reviewable element.

Going back to the fateful play in the NFC Championship game that cast the PI replay die, there were actually a second foul that was not called in addition to the uncalled DPI. The contact was an illegal hit on a defenseless receiver, a 15-yard personal foul. When DPI is also a personal foul, both fouls are assessed; the 15 yards is added to the spot of the foul, or half-distance to the goal in this case. Replay cannot jump in and add the personal foul call, it can only rule on pass interference. 

4. Automatic reviews of OPI nullifying a TD

This is a weird chicken-and-egg scenario that two rules revisions created. In addition to adding pass interference to reviewable plays, any score or turnover that is nullified by a penalty is reviewable. This provision allows the coach to get a decision from replay on a call they would have reviewed without the penalty, rather than being forced to accept the penalty to nullify the play. If, for instance, offensive holding is called on a touchdown pass, but the receiver’s foot was out of bounds, the defense’s coach will get an automatic review by the replay official, rule the pass incomplete, and then the holding would be declined. This also would prevent repeating the down.

These two provisions came together once during preseason where a completed touchdown pass was nullified by offensive pass interference. Since OPI is reviewable, the replay official stopped the game to review that call. Had the OPI flag been picked up, not only would it reverse to a touchdown, but also the defense would not have a penalty to negate the score.

5. Hail Mary replays really aren’t different

Despite there being much talk about the exception of Hail Mary plays, there really is nothing different than what is already enumerated here that needs to be added. It looks like the officiating department is adding another layer, stating, “The ‘Hail Mary’ play will be reviewed in replay consistent with the guidelines for officiating the play on the field.” 

What criteria determines a Hail Mary play? A certain distance? Does it have to be the last play of the game? What different guidelines are applied to pass interference? 

None of this really matters, just that the design of the play dictates how pass interference is applied. In reality, we are still going to refer to #1 and #2 above.

On a conventional pass, there is a receiver and one or two defenders, each establishing a route or a lane with an equal right to the ball as long as it doesn’t significantly hinder the opponent’s right to the ball. If a defender is in a better position for the pass, the receiver cannot play through him, because the receiver’s right to the ball does not disrupt another’s right.

When there is a jump ball situation, there are more players with equal right to a path to the ball, all converging to a point, with no real established route. This cannot be called the same as a conventional pass. As has been the rule, these desperation plays allow a good amount of contact that is ruled incidental, as it is contact typical to everyone jumping en mass with arms flailing. On the other hand, a player cannot deliberately push or pull down an opponent, and these are called pass interference even on Hail Mary plays. To put it another way, the design of the play itself inherently creates contact, so pass interference calls have to exclude such contact.

Replay is going to enter any Hail Mary review with its clear-and-obvious/significantly-hinders guide rails. A player who makes contact on a jump ball cannot be significantly hindering his opponent, while a player who is engaging in an active block or a blatant push of his opponent is (as is seen in this video of Jimmy Graham in 2014). More often than not, just as it is on the field, pass interference will not be called unless it really leaps out as obvious on a Hail Mary play.

6. This isn’t going to make everyone happy

One thing is certain, there will be fans that are upset with how replay will handle pass interference. If the trend remains below 20% on reversals (and even remains at 0% for overruling a flag), there inevitably will be an uproar in many corners, especially if a team is counting on replay much the same as the Saints would have been had the rule been in place last year. The rule is in place for one year only, so owners will have to vote in March 2020 to extend or make permanent the pass interference reviewable rule. 

But with the preseason dress rehearsal done, it looks like the controversies this season will be when replay takes a hands-off approach even when hands are on the opponent.

Ben Austro
Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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