Pass interference reviews were far from the NFL’s biggest officiating problem in Week 2. Referees blew a pivotal fumble/incomplete pass call that cost New Orleans a defensive touchdown, and they called a bogus roughing the passer penalty on Bradley Chubb that likely cost Denver a victory. But those are one-time mistakes. Reviewing pass interference will be a continuous issue that looms all season.
A prime example surfaced Sunday in Baltimore. In the fourth quarter, Lamar Jackson fired a pass over the middle to Marquise Brown. Arizona Cardinals cornerback Budda Baker jumped on Brown’s back before the ball arrived and swatted the ball away. The crowd screamed for a penalty, and Coach John Harbaugh reached for his red challenge flag. After seeing a replay, Harbaugh tossed it.
“He had no chance to make that play because of what the defender did,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh is biased, of course, but his view of the play seemed objectively accurate. NFL replay officials saw it otherwise.
“We don’t see clear and obvious visual evidence to overturn the ruling on the field,” NFL head of officials Al Riveron said. “We do see contact, but the contact has to rise to the level where it significantly hinders the opponent’s opportunity to make a play on the ball.”
Inherently, there are plenty of eye-of-the-beholder words in Riveron’s explanation. How does one define “significantly” in that sentence? Brown would tell you a defender hitting him before the ball arrived had a significant impact in his not catching it. “Clear and obvious?” Harbaugh watched the same replay the NFL did, and it was clear and obvious to him.
Harbaugh hoped that experience with the new system will lead to a better handle on when to challenge replay reviews. But he rightly expressed skepticism that will be possible.
“We look at every single one of those [plays] that they do,” Harbaugh said. “We try to feel for what will get overturned and what won’t. There will be a bigger body of work over time. But even with that, it’s humans making the decisions. It’s never going to be perfect. These are judgment calls that they’re making a decision on, and that’s why judgment calls on replay are going to be tough.”
Other coaches experienced the same dilemma. Before he caught a touchdown pass, Antonio Brown pushed off a cornerback with two hands, and yet the play stood. The Vikings lost a touchdown because they were called for illegal blocking downfield, a form of pass interference nobody asked to be reviewed, but nonetheless is included in the new rule.
“If I’m a coach, I don’t know what to challenge now,” Tony Dungy said on NBC’s Football Night in America. “I thought this was going to be a disaster when it started, and I believe it is.”
The new rules were implemented to prevent disaster, to ensure the NFC Championship debacle could never happen again. The problem with replay is that it is always a solution that creates more problems.
Replay averts low-frequency embarrassment while creating high-frequency drawbacks, with the side effect of wasted time and interrupted game flows. It can solve problems, but more often replay creates them. And now, the NFL has a big one on its hands.