The most famous play of the 2018 season wasn’t a catch, tackle, or run—it was the blown call heard round the world that helped propel the Rams past the Saints and into the Super Bowl. This offseason, the NFL changed its rules to make pass interference reviewable. But did it go too far? In trying to avoid one controversy, did the league create the potential for another? What debates could happen next? On Friday, The Ringer explores the ever-changing state of football officiating, and how it continues to shape how we experience the game.
NFL fans don’t have the catch rule to kick around anymore, and thank god. The league finally did the right thing before the start of the 2018 season and did away with the rulebook language that required a catch to “survive the ground.” While Steelers, Lions, and Cowboys fans definitely wish the rule was overhauled a bit sooner, we can all agree that we’re far better off now—at least as long as no one is asked to define what a “football move” is.
But while the NFL nixed the most controversial part of its rulebook, that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty more chances for fans to get upset at some regulation, league-office edict, or missed call. We here at The Ringer are getting ahead of the public angst and trying to determine which rule could spark the next officiating crisis. Most of these aren’t controversial yet, as they haven’t happened in critical moments, and the most confusing one is set to take effect this year. Rest assured, if any of these come up during a playoff game, you’ll be hearing about them. —Sayles
The Renewed Focus on Offensive Line Holding
There were 735 accepted offensive holding penalties called in 2018—the most in a season this decade and nearly 200 more than were called in 2009. While some of that increase can likely be attributed to the spike in passing plays, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the league has been cracking down on holding the past few years. To the contrary: 2019 will be the year the NFL places a greater focus on it.
The NFL said in a directive issued this offseason that offensive holding penalties “will be more strictly enforced this season, particularly on the back side of the run play or line of scrimmage.” An official visiting Bears training camp in July told ESPN’s Kevin Seifert that the league is particularly interested in legislating the so-called “lobster block”—which happens when a lineman grabs a defender’s upper body to prevent him from making a play from the backside—out of the game. The NFL’s intentions are fine, but this could all go wrong very quickly.
The old adage says that holding happens on every play, forcing refs to make judgement calls or enforce only what they see. Last year, teams averaged 1.38 offensive holding penalties per game. This year, there’s a chance every week looks like last year’s Week 13, when 94 offensive holding penalties—roughly three per team—were called. Additionally, more than any rule, offensive holding could be affected by the changes this year to pass interference. It’s not hard to imagine a holding call in the playoffs—or even worse, an obvious noncall by an official scared to let his whistle decide a big game—leading to cries from players and fans to make holding subject to review. This is what we mean when we talk about the new rule being a Pandora’s box.
Most likely, we’ll see a spike in offensive holding calls in the first few weeks of the season, similar to the effect of last year’s directive for officials to crack down on roughing the passer. (See below.) If there’s enough outcry after the first few weeks of the season, there’s a chance the league backs off. But don’t be surprised if, come the end of December, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in flags thrown on linemen. —Sayles
Fumbling Out of the End Zone
The single most nonsensically punitive rule in football hasn’t swung the course of an NFL season yet, but it’s been close. Last year, the Saints’ Tommylee Lewis fumbled out of the end zone, and while New Orleans still eked out a victory, a loss would have cost the squad home-field advantage in the postseason. In 2017, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr fumbled out of the end zone late in the fourth quarter of a Week 15 game against the Cowboys, and the ensuing loss knocked Oakland out of postseason contention (though the Raiders lost their final two games anyway). In that same year, the Bears, Titans, Cardinals, and Rams all also fell victim to this bizarre rule.
It’s only a matter of time before this rule changes an entire postseason, the same way the lack of a pass interference call helped the Rams win the NFC championship game.
The rule goes like this: If an offensive player fumbles the football and it goes out of bounds, the offense recovers the football at the spot of the fumble (crucially, that’s not at the spot where it went out of bounds). A player can’t fumble in their opponent’s end zone, because they’d score a touchdown and the play would be dead before a fumble could occur. But if a player fumbles before breaking the plane and the ball bounces through their opponent’s end zone and then falls out of bounds before either team can recover it, the ball does not return to the offense at the spot of the fumble—instead, it’s ruled a touchback, so the defense gets the football at their 20-yard line.
That’s a wild swing: It means that after the offense was thisclose to getting in the end zone, they instead get no points and have to give the ball back to the other team—all for the crime of trying to score a touchdown. And the defense doesn’t even have to recover the football. It’s ludicrous.
Why is this the rule? Even if a touchback isn’t the best way to deal with a fumble out of the back of the end zone, there must be a reasonable explanation for why the NFL would choose to treat them that way, right? Here’s then–NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino explaining the rule in 2016, via Pro Football Talk:
“Because the goal line is involved—and this is a consistent application of the impetus rule. Impetus is the force that puts the ball into an end zone. So if a team provides the impetus that puts a ball into their opponent’s end zone … then they are responsible for it. They’re responsible for it. And if the ball gets out of bounds through the end zone then it is a touchback.”
So it’s a touchback because … the offense is “responsible” for the fumble? Is the offense not responsible for fumbles that go out of bounds in other areas of the field? Let’s let Blandino try again:
“Now that may seem like an egregious penalty but again, think about it, they put the ball into their opponent’s end zone. If it’s not fourth down or inside two minutes, if they recover it, it’s a score. So that’s potentially a big play, so the penalty for not recovering it … has to be big as well. That’s why it’s a touchback. That’s consistent with other loose balls that go into an opponent’s end zone. Kicks, punts, fumbles, backward passes.”
So now the reason is that it’s a “big play,” and that means the penalty “has to be big as well.” But that’s not true of other such plays that occur in an opponent’s end zone. For example, if an offensive player commits pass interference in the end zone, it’s not a larger penalty than if the play had happened at the 1-yard line. Fumbles are getting special treatment in this regard.
Let’s give Blandino one more chance:
“You’re responsible for putting the ball into your opponent’s end zone, you’re responsible for recovering it. If you don’t and it goes out of bounds or the defense recovers, they’ve defended their goal line, and they get a touchback.”
Now we’re just going in circles. There’s no real explanation for why a fumble that goes out of the end zone is a touchback because it doesn’t make sense. In every other area of the field, the defense has to gain possession to be awarded the football.
In 2017, my colleague Rodger Sherman proposed five solutions to fix the dumbest rule in football, but there’s really only one solution that needs to be discussed: Just treat a fumble out of the end zone like a fumble out of bounds anywhere else on the field, and give the ball back to the offense at the spot of the fumble. The minutiae of the NFL rulebook shouldn’t cause wild swings in games. Giving the ball back to the offense is the most straightforward and fair way to deal with a fumble that goes out of the end zone. —McAtee
Field Goals That Go Over the Uprights
The Fail Mary is burned into our minds—it’s a missed call so egregious that it directly led to the end of the 2012 NFL referee lockout. But the night before the infamous Seahawks-Packers game, the replacement referees were at the center of separate, less-remembered controversy at the end of a primetime showdown, and a similar incident could rear its head again at any time even with real officials on the sidelines. With two seconds left in a Patriots-Ravens Week 3 matchup, Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker lined up for a game-winning 27-yard field goal attempt. He kicked the ball to the right and high—so high, in fact, that it traveled over the upright. The officials declared the kick good despite protests from the Pats and an irate Bill Belichick, and the Ravens won, 31-30.
According to NFL rules, a kick that goes over the uprights is good if it travels “between their outside edges.” We’re supposed to pretend the posts extend upward toward the heavens, but on this plane of existence, they don’t. So referees in this situation have to make a judgement call on whether the path of an 11-inch-long object shooting 30-plus feet above their heads at about 70 miles per hour was inside of an invisible line. Oh, also: These types of kicks are not reviewable, so officials would have only seconds to get the call right.
The NFL responded to the Tucker kick in 2014 by raising the height of the uprights to 35 feet. (It declined to extend them farther because the goal posts have to be “able to withstand the wind loads of all areas of the country.”) Since then, no kick at the pro level has stirred up controversy similar to Tucker’s. But it has happened a few times at the college level, where the upright height remains 30 feet: in a Hoosiers loss to Duke in 2015 and on a Wake Forest kick in 2017, to name two instances. We saw in last year’s NFL playoffs just how much a few inches can matter on a field goal try. Despite how rare these way-too-high kicks are, it’s not unfathomable to think the issue could come up on the game’s biggest stage.
So what can the NFL do to fix this? The league has been reluctant to put lasers extending from the top of the uprights because it could never replicate how a ball bounces off the post. (To that point: Are the refs supposed to envision how the ball would bounce off the imaginary lines they’re currently using?) And while some have called for sensor technology inside the ball, it’s unclear whether it even exists in a usable form or would make a difference in instances when the kick is traveling that high. The best solution is the most obvious one: Make these kicks reviewable. —Sayles
Defender Landing With “All or Most” of His Weight on the Passer
This was a controversy early last season, when refs began throwing flags for roughing the passer at astronomical rates. It turned into an uproar when Clay Matthews landed on Alex Smith in a Week 3 game between Green Bay and Washington:
This is a foul for roughing the passer - the defender lands “with all or most of the defender’s weight” on the passer. Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(b): https://t.co/s9YKN8NLuT #GBvsWAS pic.twitter.com/ei2QZkvvzx— NFL Football Operations (@NFLFootballOps) September 23, 2018
After that game, the NFL issued a clarification to its officials, and roughing the passer penalties stopped being handed out so liberally. But the rule, which specifies that a defender “must strive to wrap up the passer with the defensive player’s arms and not land on the passer with all or most of his body weight” is still in the rulebook.
For now, the clarification the NFL issued last year did its job, and it’s hard to fault the league for rule changes that are designed to make the sport safer. But the clarification that the NFL made could still be more clearly defined in the official rulebook, perhaps by specifying that penalties should only be handed out when a defender lands forcefully on a quarterback, as was the case when Anthony Barr broke Aaron Rodgers’s collar bone in 2017. The NFL cited that play in its clarification, indicating that those are the types of hits this rule is meant to target. But so long as language is vague and open to interpretation, this issue could return at any time. —McAtee
Kyler Murray’s Clapping
I don’t think Kyler Murray’s clapping will erupt into the next great officiating crisis, but it’s gotten attention this preseason. In the Cardinals’ second preseason game, Murray was penalized twice for false starts, which is virtually unthinkable: NFL quarterbacks only received eight false-start penalties all of last season, per ESPN Stats & Info.
According to Murray, the officials flagged him for being “too abrupt” and “not smooth enough as far as bringing [his] hands together.” What does that abruptness looks like in action? Here’s the first penalty:
And this is the second one:
By the Cardinals’ third preseason game, Murray’s clap was gone, replaced by him lifting his leg. He wasn’t called for a false start in that game, and this issue may already be put to bed. But if Murray’s clap returns, the flags could come with it. It would be a real shame if one of the league’s most interesting offenses has to be reworked—even ever so slightly—because of a clap. —McAtee
The New Pass-Interference Rule
Of course, the rule most likely to create controversy this year is the one that was enacted this offseason to prevent controversy. The new rule allows for coaches to challenge pass interference calls and noncalls—which sounds great! Pass interference is the single most punitive penalty in football, often turning what may have been a 50-50 ball into a long gain by the offense. Conversely, nothing is more deflating than seeing your team’s receiver just miss an eminently catchable ball because he has a defensive back draped all over him. It’s important that officials get these calls right! There’s a reasonable argument that coaches should be able to challenge these plays just like they would a pass ruled an incompletion. In this context, the rule makes perfect sense, and with coaches only given two challenges to start the game, it won’t unnecessarily disrupt play.
But things get dicey with two minutes left in each half, when reviews of pass interference, like other plays, can only be initiated by an official in the booth. What will be the standard for those reviews? The NFL said that these will happen only when there’s “clear and obvious visual evidence” or a foul (or nonfoul) upon live viewing or initial replay. But even the league’s attempt to explain the types of plays that will be reviewed this season don’t appear to meet the “clear and obvious” standard. Best-case scenario, we’re in line for more time stoppage during critical moments. Worst case, we’re going to see a lot more plays that looked clean live turned into penalties, changing the outcomes of games, seasons, or even championships.
It’s also important to keep in mind that this change was made in response to one isolated incident—granted, possibly the worst blown call in the sport’s history, but not one symptomatic of a leaguewide problem. The new rule will, however, have a leaguewide effect. The NFL made the right call when it changed the controversial catch rule before the 2018 season. But in the case of pass-interference replay, it may have created controversy where there wasn’t much before. —Sayles