Under Further Review: The NFL’s Pass Interference Challenge rule change
By Abram Erickson
Before the 2019 season, the NFL instituted a controversial new rule change. For the first time, coaches have the ability to challenge pass interference calls made on the field. Some praised the decision as a step for the NFL towards being proactive on rule changes, while others saw it as overreaching into a part of the game that shouldn’t be touched.
Most basically, the rule added pass interference to the list of plays eligible to be decided by instant replay. This means they will be allowed to do so twice per game—three times if they get the first two right.
A controversial “no-call”
Undoubtedly, the introduction of the rule came in response to an obvious instance of pass interference that went uncalled in the 2019 NFC Championship Game between the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams.
The no-call came at a pivotal point late in the game, when the Saints were attempting to wind down the clock or score a touchdown to put the game in the bag. The incomplete pass caused by the play forced them to settle for a field goal, which allowed the Rams to later score and win the game, advancing them to the Super Bowl.
After extreme pushback from fans, players, and coaches, rumors of a pass interference rule change began circulating around the league. During the offseason, coaches debated the rule change at the NFL’s Annual Meeting, and decided to support it unanimously. When sent to the owners for a vote, the rule change passed 31-1.
With almost unilateral support around the league, the outlook on the change was optimistic at the start of the season. However, in just a short time, a deep division grew between those for and against the pass interference challenge.
Fortunately, the rule change is only in effect for a trial period of one year. The NFL will now have to decide to scrap the change altogether, or permanently stamp it into the rulebook. With fierce proponents on both sides, the NFL faces a difficult decision.
Support for the change
Those that support permanently adding the pass interference challenge into play ultimately see the rule change as a sign that the NFL is willing to work quickly to make positive change.
Recently, the league has developed a reputation as antiquated, stubborn, and resistant to any significant changes. Critics often point out examples like the league’s slow response to concussion-related issues or its longtime refusal to change the “catch rule.” However, adding the pass interference challenge this season has shown a rare ability by the NFL to be proactive.
These supporters argue that the league saw, in the case of the Saints, how a missed pass interference call could affect the trajectory of a team’s whole season, and decided to make a change to prevent similar things from happening in the future.
Geoff Schwartz, a former NFL lineman and contributor to SB Nation, is one such supporter. “I’m more pro-officials than most because I realize they have a tough job and more often than not, they get the call right,” he says. “But I also understand the game is being played so fast that it’s possible officials miss or incorrectly flag a pass interference call. Now, some of these can be fixed.”
This is the portion of the rule that draws the most support. The ability to challenge pass interference allows referees to overturn egregiously missed calls. As we saw with the Saints, even one play can determine a season. The rule simply aims to stop that scenario from ever happening again. “The end goal of this rule is getting the proper call made on the field, which is something we should all be excited to see,” Schwartz concludes.
Opposition to the change
For all of the supporters of the rule change, there are as many, if not more, doubters. They may range from die-hard football purists to those that analyze minute statistical data, but all agree that the ability to challenge a pass interference call should not be a part of today’s NFL.
For many of these people, the impetus for their opposition is that this rule change is the first time a so-called “judgment call” has been made reviewable. Traditionally, instant replay only decides objective calls. These range from deciding whether a runner is safe or out in baseball, if a tennis serve is in-play or out of bounds, or even if a wide receiver caught the ball with two feet inbounds or just one.
This rule change allows pass interference, a penalty that is loosely defined by the rulebook and largely left up to the discretion of the official on the field, to be intensely scrutinized under instant replay.
Former NFL Referee Gene Steratore has chimed in on the conversation via Twitter to oppose the pass interference challenge. “Reviewing judgment calls, like PI [pass interference], is slowing the game down and affecting the quality of the product. Let’s get back to football and let the officials apply their judgment in game speed. Watching plays at 10 percent speed and looking for contact is not how the rules should be applied.”
The unevenness in the way the pass interference challenge was adjudicated also created detractors. During the 2019 season, 101 pass interference calls were challenged, and only 24 of them were overturned. Additionally, all 24 times the call was overturned, it was on offensive pass interference, a penalty that happens much less often than on defense. No defensive pass interference call was successfully challenged and overturned.
It is this combination of the rule’s unequal enforcement, the nature of pass interference as a judgment call, and the possibility of making games longer that has resulted in a large group of people that view the change negatively.
A difficult decision ahead
Heading into the upcoming season, the NFL has a big decision to make. There has not been heavy support for the pass interference challenge rule change. Now they must choose whether or not they want the rule to stay.
A recent informal survey sent from the NFL to its teams reveals that the outlook is quite dismal for those that support the rule. When asked about renewing the rule for the 2020 season, 17 of 22 teams answered no. When asked if the rule change should become permanent, 21 of 29 voted no.
Ultimately, the rule change needs a positive vote from 75 percent of team owners to extend the rule change. They have the ability to decide whether this would mean only the 2020 season or on a permanent basis. Although opinion seems to lean to the negative, the start of the season is a long way away, and you can be sure those in support won’t go down without a fight.
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