A blown call in the Saints-Rams game changed who was going to the Super Bowl, but changing the rules tied to pass interference is a slippery slope.
Right now, all anyone can talk about is one of the worst missed calls in the history of the NFL. Even when you compare the missed pass interference (or targeting, or unnecessary roughness) call to Dez caught it or the Tuck Rule game, it’s bad. Really bad. You could argue Tom Brady didn’t fumble and that Dez Bryant actually didn’t catch the ball. Nobody’s saying the referees got this one right.
Following the game, ESPN reported that the NFL will once again discuss reviewing pass interference calls within the game. That sounds like it’s the correct choice, but we have to be careful. This could forever change the way the game is played, for the worse.
The arguments for adding replay to pass interference calls seem fairly obvious. At the end of the day, we want to get the call correct, right? Well, this isn’t any simple football play. Pass interference is one of the few true judgement calls left in the NFL.
The NFL rule book spends 850 words explaining what pass interference is. This is the first line:
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.
Let’s focus on the “more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage” part. That would significantly change a team’s game plan, because a quarterback could just throw the ball immediately while a corner back is jamming. Technically, the letter of the law says that’s pass interference, even though there’s zero chance the defender can avoid that.
How often would a team want that play reviewed? Would it be once a drive? It would at least be once a quarter.
That means the game is slowing down significantly, and these aren’t easy reviews. The missed play against the Saints is a once-in-a-generation play. The large majority of these reviews would be in the second quarter of meaningless regular season games. They would take five to seven minutes each time, because the refs would need to check when the ball was thrown, where the receiver was, whether the defender turned around in time, whether the ball was catchable and so on. That’s a lot of time watching the referees watch replays.
Then there’s the fact that pass interference is ultimately a judgement call. Pass interference to one referee isn’t exactly the same as it is to another. That’s a problem in of itself, but one that this rule wouldn’t fix.
Let’s take an example. In his prime, Rob Gronkowski was arguably interfered with on every single play. So basically, if you get another genetic phenom like him in the league, will that team just challenge every time he doesn’t catch the ball? Imagine how much that would change the game plan of every single team in the league? Not only does the team have to game plan how to stop this player, but they have to guess how the referee will interpret pass interference in the moment.
There is one way they can make pass interference a play worthy of review. They need to take judgement out of the play entirely. That won’t be easy. The NFL Rules Committee needs to find a way to make it so that every single person knows whether it’s pass interference or not. It’s similar to what they did with roughing the passer in terms of hands to the face. It’s straight down the line. If you touch the QBs face, it’s a penalty.
That may be too hard to define, keeping pass interference a judgement call. That could cause referees to switch calls based on little evidence as a reaction to one play. There are way too many variables to slow down the game when it comes to pass interference, so if replay becomes an option there are many more changes that need to come behind it.