Making Pass Interference Reviewable Isn't Going To Make It Any Clearer

The play above was flagged. If you didn’t watch—and, dear reader, I sincerely hope you had something better to do last night than watch a Bengals-Skins preseason game into the fourth quarter—can you guess what the call was? Can you guess which player was flagged? More to the point, can you guess what the ultimate decision was after the call was reviewed on video?


If you’re thinking Bengals cornerback Davontae Harris was called for pass interference, and that the decision was overturned, you’d be wrong! Instead, it was Washington wideout Kelvin Harmon who was whistled for PI—and the call was upheld after Skins head coach Jay Gruden demanded a replay review. This is exactly the kind of chaos that the new rule allowing for replay review of pass interference calls and non-calls threatens to generate. But there’s also reason to think what seems like an egregious mistake like this may not be all that common once the real games begin. Because the call turned out to be correct, even if it wasn’t clear to those watching the broadcast.

Let’s first watch the Harmon PI play out—and not just to have a laugh at Joe Theismann’s confounded reaction (“What!?”) to the call on the field:

By every available angle, Harmon did not appear to do anything wrong. He jumped and reached for the ball, as the rules allow him to do. Gruden, rightly, was mystified:

“I need an explanation for that one. I don’t know. All I know is I want Kelvin Harmon to do that every time the ball is in the air. That’s why we drafted him because he’s aggressive when the ball in the air. If he can’t do what he did in this game then I don’t know what he can do. I’m going to continue to coach Kelvin Harmon to go up and go get the ball like he did tonight and good things will happen for him. We’ll get the explanation, hopefully.”

The initial explanation that eventually came from NFL senior VP of officiating Al Riveron was pretty weak:

So Riveron essentially punted on an explanation because it’s possible there was additional, earlier contact that wasn’t readily available from the broadcast angles, which is all the replay official has to rely on. Riveron’s predecessor, Dean Blandino, tweeted a similar thought:


Riveron might have been better off saying this more explicitly last night—especially if the referee had informed him of any additional, earlier contact by Harmon. Instead, the rest of us were left to Zapruder a screamingly obvious bad call and to fill in the blanks on why it might have made. That won’t get tiresome at all once the regular season begins. But then, just a few minutes ago, Riveron finally offered a more complete explanation that indicates there was some kind of earlier contact made by Harmon:


He should have just said that the first time!

This could be the kind of problem that’s unique to the preseason. For one thing, preseason games are handled by local broadcasters, with fewer cameras and therefore fewer angles. For another, the preseason is known to be a kind of testing ground for new rules, as was the case last year with the helmet rule. For still another, the preseason also serves as an opportunity for officials in the league’s development program to get game experience. I realize this is a bit of a charitable way to look at things, but it is possible to envision that a call this bad won’t happen come September.


Take another OPI call that happened against Harmon a few minutes later. At first glance, he made a remarkable catch over a defender, and no call was made. But Bengals head coach Zac Taylor challenged the non-call, and Harmon was again hit with a penalty. This time, however, it was obvious he had grabbed the jersey of Bengals corner Jordan Brown:


At the same time, Riveron specifically did address a call reversal from last night’s Eagles-Jaguars, thus inadvertently revealing the kind of confusion that can be expected. On the field, there was no call. But after a challenge from Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, the replay official determined that Jags DB Josh Robinson interfered with Eagles wideout Carlton Agudosi:


Robinson did indeed grab Agudosi’s jersey, and it seems obvious enough! But it’s also hard not to notice that Agudosi used his left arm to attempt to push off of Robinson. This is the trouble the NFL is flirting with: A close reading of every call is frequently going to invite an opportunity for every person (if not every replay official) to see whatever it is they want. What’s the over-under on how long it takes for fans and media to demand another fix for this fix?

Dom Cosentino is a staff writer at Deadspin.