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NFL no closer to defining pass interference

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To the chagrin of dumbfounded coaches and confused teams, perplexed broadcast crews and enraged fans, every week across the NFL’s vast empire one player interferes with another before a pass arrives — and goes unpunished for it.

In these moments, when yellow penalty flags remain lodged in officials’ pockets, aggrieved coaches weigh emotion against reason: Do they challenge the non-call, hoping that by sheer luck it will be overruled by the new instant replay mechanism? Or do they stew on the sideline, red flag pocketed, and resign themselves to the unlikelihood of a reversal?

Instead of preventing egregious mistakes, such as the one that most likely cost New Orleans a berth in the last Super Bowl, expanding replay to include pass interference looks like another blunder.

After 12 weeks of wasted challenges and lost timeouts, of inconsistency and obfuscation, the league’s erratic application of the defined standard for overturning an on-field decision — “clear and obvious visual evidence” — has made the football masses yearn for simpler times, such as when no one knew what constituted a catch. Overall, through Week 12, 15 of 77 reviews of pass interference were overturned, though nearly half of those reversals — seven of 15 — were initiated by the officials in the replay booth, who are responsible for challenges in the last 2 minutes of the half.

“The cumulative effect of the misses, plus the replay spotlight on these misses, has really taken its toll,” said Terry McAulay, a longtime NFL official who is now a rules analyst for NBC.

The questionable calls have dented confidence in a mechanism ostensibly intended to restore it after a mess of an NFC championship game, in which Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, without consequence, walloped New Orleans Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived.

With the endorsement of New Orleans coach Sean Payton, the NFL competition committee in March pushed owners to make pass interference subject to replay on a one-season trial basis. The reviews are handled by the officiating department, headed by the senior vice president of officiating, Alberto Riveron, in New York. Coaches receive two challenges per game and a third if both are successful. If they lose a challenge, they also lose a timeout.

For so long, the NFL relied on replay to fix objective situations, such as whether a ball-carrier stepped out of bounds or was down by contact. It either happened, or it didn’t.

By contrast, pass interference is, by nature, subjective. An infraction that might seem clear and obvious to one officiating crew might be disregarded by another. Adding instant replay, in effect, created separate criteria for pass interference. The rulebook’s definition — any act more than a yard beyond the LOS that “significantly hinders” a player’s ability to catch the ball — differs from the “clear and obvious” standard.

In the Superdome on Sunday, the very stadium where momentum for the new rule originated, the league enforced it against the Saints at a critical juncture, reversing a late non-call on an incomplete fourth-quarter pass and penalizing them for defensive pass interference.

The call gave the Carolina Panthers a new set of downs from the Saints’ 3-yard line. New Orleans won, 34-31, and afterward Payton — who also unsuccessfully challenged an offensive pass-interference call on tight end Jared Cook — expressed his frustration with the replay center in Manhattan, saying that “quite honestly, it wasn’t New York’s best game.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin has lost all three of his pass-interference challenges this season, including two in Week 9 against Indianapolis. In Pittsburgh last week, Tomlin, who was against expanding replay to include pass interference, said the standard seemed to shift without notice at some point in early September.

“We all started challenging a little bit more than we initially anticipated,” said Tomlin, who, like Payton, is a member of the competition committee. “But once that bar got back to where it was intended, I think we all need to fade away from the challenges. I know that I have.”

To Tomlin’s point, McAulay said he detected a “major change” with how the standard was applied, elevated to a staggeringly high bar, after two decisions were reversed — a Minnesota touchdown at Green Bay and a non-call on Pittsburgh against Seattle.

The data supports McAulay’s assertion: Through Week 12, coaches had issued 51 challenges related to pass interference since Week 3, according to data provided by Pro Football Reference, and only six (including two on Sunday) have been overturned. Over one stretch, 32 of 33 were upheld.

“Just tell us what it is,” McAulay said of the standard. “Where are you? Tell us, tell the coaches. We will adjust if they would publicly tell us what that is and get us all on the same page going into Week 12. They have not done that. And now we’re left to our own devices.”

By McAulay’s estimation, about 15 or 20 mistakes this season should have been corrected by replay but were not. Unprompted, he started listing some: Avonte Maddox’s obstruction of Marquez Valdes-Scantling in Week 4. T.Y. Hilton’s phantom offensive pass interference in Week 5. Jonathan Jones’ mugging of Golden Tate in Week 6.

Perhaps the most blatant example occurred in Week 11, when Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey bumped, grabbed and tugged at Hoston Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the end zone before dragging him to the turf. No flag was thrown. Coach Bill O’Brien’s challenge was denied, and afterward he said: “I have no idea what pass interference is anymore. No idea.”

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