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As Expected, The NFL's Pass Interference Replay Rule Has Been A Huge Mess

What you see above looks like a textbook pass interference penalty. Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones pretty clearly hooked the arm of Giants wideout Golden Tate before the ball arrived. No flag was thrown. Yet even after Giants head coach Pat Shurmur challenged the non-call—as the rules permit coaches to do this year—the call on the field stood. In fact, most of this season’s pass interference challenges have been upheld, even when a review seems to indicate the call or non-call should have been overturned. The rule change was always bound to create lots of confusion. Buy why, after further review, are seemingly obvious calls not being reversed?

Let’s start with what the NFL’s competition committee established as the standard for a call reversal (emphasis mine):

A decision on the field will only be reversed based on clear and obvious visual evidence that the ruling was incorrect, the same standard for all reviews.

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Yet as that play last night indicated, that’s not what’s been happening. According to NFL GSIS data, 40 pass interference-related plays have been challenged in the 79 games played so far this season, but just seven have been overturned. That’s a total of 17.5 percent. Of those 40 plays, 28 involved non-calls, with only five (17.9 percent) resulting in a reversal. And just two (16.7 percent) of the 12 penalties that were challenged have been overturned. In recent weeks, challenges have basically stood no chance at all:

Seifert’s advice for coaches is correct, based on how things have played out. But what constitutes “a complete mugging”? No one seems to know. As the replay official reviewed the non-call during last night’s game, Fox Sports rules analyst Mike Pereira did his best to make some sense of what’s been going on. “Look, I think we all would agree that’s pass interference, because he grabs him,” Pereira said. “But in replay, it’s a different standard. I mean, does it rise to the level, we have seen it before, although it has the appearances of it, does it ...” In mid-sentence, Pereira’s words were cut off by the voice of referee Brad Allen, who announced to the crowd that the call on the field stood.

After Allen finished, Pereira continued. “And, really, what they’re doing, Joe, is they’re looking back to the championship game in New Orleans, and they’re looking for it to be for that level—it has to rise to a level in replay to have them actually make the call from New York.” Again, though: How is a coach supposed to know what kind of contact might “rise to a level” to merit a reversal? By rule, pass interference occurs when an offensive or defensive player does something that “significantly hinders” an opponent’s ability to make a play on the ball. Which is what seemed to happen last Sunday, when Saints wideout Michael Thomas clearly pushed off on Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves before catching a pass for a 42-yard gain:

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Yet the non-call stood, much to the chagrin (and confusion) of Bucs head coach Bruce Arians:

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Now consider this Week 4 pass-interference call that went against Steelers wideout Johnny Holton:

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After Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin challenged the call, ESPN rules analyst John Parry explained exactly what we were looking at. “I like this as not being offensive pass interference,” Parry said. “There is a left-hand feel—no push, no shove, no separation. But will it be enough for [NFL officiating chief Al Riveron] to make a change?” Turns out it wasn’t. After the call was upheld, color commentator Booger McFarland spoke up to say that even Tomlin was confused about how the replay would be enforced—and Tomlin is a part of the competition committee that had crafted the rule. “I have no idea what I am going to do moving forward,” Tomlin told reporters after the game, “because it appears to be a moving target.”

Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk has gone so far as to declare the replay review rule dead because of “the ridiculously high bar that now applies to these situations.” However! Florio still hedged a little:

For now, the smart approach for all coaches will be to assume that anything other than a receiver being blown up by a defensive back before the ball arrives won’t trigger a ruling of inteference via replay review, if the officials miss it in real time. Perhaps, in a close game, the outcome will be different.

Perhaps it won’t matter at all until the single-elimination round arrives.

So coaches should be prepared not to challenge pass interference calls or non-calls, unless they’re screamingly obvious, even though those challenges keep getting declined even when they are screamingly obvious, but maybe it’ll be different in the waning moments of a close game, unless it isn’t, though the playoffs could get treated differently, too, and ... god, who even knows anymore. The replay review rule was always going to be problematic because pass interference is a judgment call, both live and when broken down frame-by-frame after the fact. Perhaps the only real standard the NFL needs for these types of calls is to acknowledge that shit happens.

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Dom Cosentino

Dom Cosentino is a staff writer at Deadspin.