This past offseason, the NFL passed a new rule outlining the procedures for a reviewing plays for both offensive and defensive pass interference. The rule was a spur of the moment reaction and proposed solution to the blatant missed call in the Rams at Saints NFC Championship last January. Sean Payton, Saints head coach and member of the NFL Competition Committee can be credited with being the creator of this new rule.
So far through 17 games into the NFL season, there have been eight pass interference reviews. Of the eight, six have been uncalled reviews where the flag was not thrown after the play occurred and only two of those reviews have resulted in a flag being thrown (DPI on Richard Sherman in 49ers-Buccaneers and OPI on Quincy Enunwa in Bills-Jets). The other two reviewed pass interference plays were both upheld.
How is pass interference called?
Pass interference is now a reviewable element in a game and it can be initiated in 3 ways: (1) by a head coach outside the final two minutes of the game, (2) on any scoring play or turnover or one nullified by penalty, and 3) in the final two minutes of a game or overtime. Coaches can challenge a pass interference flag or can challenge to see if pass interference occurred but was not called on the field during a play. The review outcomes are decided by NFL game day central who then radio back to the officials on the field about their decision.
While there have been two reviews that have resulted in flag after the fact, none of the other reviews have resulted in the officials picking up the flag after initially calling the penalty. This highlights the subjectivity of the rule and the difficulty of determining — to the replay standard of clear and obvious evidence to reverse — if and when contact occurred while the pass is in the air and if it truly impeded a receiver’s or defender’s ability to make a play on the pass.
Pass interference is essentially called the same way on the field, but the addition of the replay review adds complication to techniques used in defensive pass coverage.
Not called on the field but reviewed after play
In a late game review initiated by Panthers coach Ron Rivera, the head coach decided that there may have been contact while the pass was in the air and asked for a review.
The replay showed that there was contact beyond five yards but that quarterback Cam Newton had not yet thrown the pass. There was minimal contact downfield after this point and the replay officials determined that no pass interference flag was warranted. It did, however, raise the issue of whether or not the officials should have an illegal contact foul before the pass. But that aspect of the play is not reviewable.
Called on field and reviewed
On a call that was ruled defensive pass interference on the field and reviewed after the fact in Seattle vs. Cincinnati, a Seahawks defender seemingly made a great play on the pass but was deemed to have interfered with the receiver. This is a play that could have gone either way and highlights the subjectivity of the rule.
Seahawks cornerback Tre Flowers came from behind the receiver to knock the pass away in what looks like a bang-bang play at full speed. But since the initial call was pass interference on the field, there wasn’t enough seen in replay to determine that he had not significantly interfered with the receiver since (1) he did hook the receiver’s arm, and (2) he did play through the back of him to deflect the pass.
Not called on the field, reviewed, and overturned
In the 49ers-Buccaneers game, cornerback Richard Sherman appeared to also make a clean defensive stop on a pass intended down the sideline for receiver Mike Evans. The pass sailed out of bounds and Sherman was not initially flagged.
Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians challenged the call of no pass interference and in review, one angle showed that Sherman had clearly grabbed a handful of jersey as the pass was in the air, impeding Evans’ ability to catch the pass. The two players were in clear view of every possible angle the officials can use in replay and the pass was thrown in such a way as to allow Evans the possibility of a back shoulder catch.
As he stopped his momentum, Sherman grabs hold of the jersey in broad daylight and hinders Evans’ ability to catch the pass. This highlights the difficulty presented in these types of plays. If Sherman was in close quarters Evans on his inside hip, playing through his chest plate, and gets his around, then there’s a good chance this call is not overturned to a flag because of the nature of the defensive back’s technique and ability to stick on the receiver.
I spoke with current defensive back coach and former NFL and Arena Football League cornerback Eric Crocker about how this new rule affects defenders who have been taught certain techniques prior to this rule. He said, “As far as technique learned, a lot of the things we learned growing up have to be thrown out with pass interference reviews. We have to find a new way to ‘cheat.'”
Further, Crocker stated:
I’ve always taught my guys if you look through the receiver to the ball and make a play, there will be contact but they won’t call it because you got your head around. Well, as you saw with Sherman they can review it. It’s tough to play defensive back, especially against a physical receiver like Mike Evans.
Presumably the officials will become more comfortable making the calls and reviewing them in replay as they gather more data points from the previous reviews. However, it’s a good bet that most calls reviewed will not be overturned and very few that aren’t called will yield a flag after the fact unless there is a clear view of the offending act, which can be limited by camera angles and defender positioning.