The replacement officials made many mistakes over the weekend, some of such great consequence that they inspired incredible anger, others bad enough only to prompt a very loud "bullshit" chant. But they've all been bad. Instead of focusing on one specific mistake, or all the mistakes as a whole, though, we want to focus on one persistent strain of mistake. The scabs don't know anything about illegal contact.
Illegal contact is unique to the NFL. They don't have it in college or high school football, because Ty Law didn't offend powerful people at those levels of the game. The rule—which has been around since 1978 but wasn't particularly enforced until after Law picked Peyton Manning three times in the 2003 AFC championship game—states that defenders aren't allowed to make contact with receivers if the receivers are more than five yards from the line of scrimmage, so long as the quarterback still has the ball and is in the pocket. The important point here: illegal contact is not pass interference lite. If the defender messes with the receiver before the ball's in the air, that can't be pass interference—only defensive holding or illegal contact. If the defensive back messes with the receiver once the ball's in the air, that can't be illegal contact—only pass interference.
And yet! The scabs have been treating illegal contact as if it were pass interference lite, an innocuous flag with less stigma. It's a go-along, get-along call, a compromise that gives offenses an automatic first down but awards them fewer yards than they would've received after a pass interference. Why might that be? Are the replacements unfamiliar with the rules? Are they too chickenshit to call the heavy stuff? Whatever the answer, the way this particular penalty has been handled says a lot about the defects of the NFL's scab era thus far.
Since the season began, there have been 13 flags thrown for illegal contact. As you might expect, that's down a bit from the usual state of things. Through the first three weeks of last season, refs threw 21 flags for illegal contact.
But the diminished frequency of the flags is not the biggest problem. Rather, the scab refs have been calling the play all wrong. We reviewed all 13 2012 illegal contact flags and found seven bad calls. In the 21 illegal contact plays we watched from the first three weeks of the 2011 season, the refs missed just one. (They sensed a bump where there wasn't one. But there was no should-have-been PI in the batch.)
Take a look at this third-down play, from Sunday's Jets-Dolphins game. The refs called illegal contact on No. 57, Bart Scott, who is standing just in front of the first-down marker. But there are only three yards to go. There's no way the receiver could be more than five yards downfield, so there's no way this is illegal contact. It's either pass interference, or it's a clean play.
Here's another bad call, from Baltimore-Philadelphia in Week Two. The call was illegal contact on Nnamdi Asomugha, No. 24, who is twisting wide receiver Jacoby Jones here. It's rare to see illegal contact this far down the field, on an outside receiver, and lo and behold, this was the wrong call. In this broadcast shot, Asomugha is still twisting Jones at the 10-yard line.
But this screenshot of the all-22 film—taken just after the ball leaves Joe Flacco's hand—shows Asomugha and Jones at the 14. There's at least five yards of battling after the ball's in the air—that's plainly pass interference. Even Dan Dierdorf notices and complains.
Want more bad calls? Of course you do. Here's one from Sunday night's Patriots-Ravens game that sparked a lengthy and astute Cris Collinsworth complaint. The call was illegal contact on Lardarius Webb, No. 21 on the Ravens. But this broadcast shot shows that Webb is still grabbing Welker while the ball's in the air. That's pass interference.
Here's that screenshot again, with the ball and jersey grab highlighted.
The lesson here: So long as the scabs are around, defenders might as well take their chances with shoving receivers after five yards. Because most of these crews have no idea what the hell illegal contact is.