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The Starting 11: The NFL’s Pass Interference Challenge Rule Is a Sham

To correct the wrong that cost the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl last season, the league rushed together a plan. But without clear guidelines in place, it was doomed from the start. Plus: Tua Tagovailoa’s injury looms over the 2020 QB carousel.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in.

1. The rule allowing coaches to challenge pass interference has been a sham all season, and the no-call in Sunday’s Texans-Ravens game should be the final straw. The NFL’s decision to make PI reviewable this season made sense on its face. Last year’s incident late in the NFC championship effectively cost the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl, and the league wanted to prevent something similar from happening again. What worried me and others, though, was how the rule would be enforced. Relegislating judgment calls in slow motion is tricky, and determining the threshold for overturning a call figured to be the knottiest part of the process. Without establishing that clear and consistent threshold, the rule was bound to fall flat. And since the league failed to do so, that’s exactly what’s happened.

As ESPN’s Kevin Seifert pointed out on Sunday, NFL coaches have lost 32 of their 33 pass interference challenges since the start of Week 4. That includes a play Texans coach Bill O’Brien flagged this week, in which Marlon Humphrey essentially tackled DeAndre Hopkins in the end zone and nothing was called.

By establishing a nearly impossible standard for PI to be overturned, the league has painted itself into a corner. Changing how the rule is enforced now wouldn’t be feasible. Nearly two-thirds through the season, a precedent has been set about what types of plays coaches should challenge (read: none of them). Changing that standard at this point would only bring more confusion and criticism. For the rest of the season, the NFL has no choice but to continue this charade before deciding how to tweak the rule in 2020.

Every aspect of how the league has implemented this rule so far has only raised more questions. The league’s officiating department seemingly couldn’t find a proper tipping point for how and when to overturn calls, so it has just decided to ignore the rule. If that was even a remote possibility, why would the league consider installing the rule in the first place? All this new system has done is bring more scrutiny to bang-bang plays with no new way to properly resolve them. Putting this rule in place is just the latest example of the league performatively reacting to an event in an effort to assuage public fury, only to botch the details required to properly see that plan through. At this point, it seems like a pass interference call at a crucial moment of a playoff game is all but inevitable, and when that happens, the league will have no one else to blame.

2. Lamar Jackson’s brilliance on Sunday was nothing new, but Baltimore’s emergence as a complete team should scare the rest of the AFC. With four more touchdown passes and another holy shit run, Jackson’s MVP candidacy is stronger than ever. His ability to shake free of defenders and make professional athletes look hapless in open space just isn’t a normal occurrence on an NFL field, and his growth as a passer becomes more apparent every week. Both of Jackson’s downfield touchdown throws on Sunday required him to climb the pocket before firing a strike over the middle of the field. And the way he’s able to make dart-like throws from every conceivable arm angle has been an absolute joy to watch.

Fixating on Jackson is easy when you’re watching Baltimore, but the most impressive part of Sunday’s 41-7 dismantling of the Texans was the Ravens’ dominance in almost every area. Mark Ingram roasted Houston defenders on both of his touchdown catches; and though Baltimore’s scheme consistently puts running backs in positive situations—as both runners and receivers—Ingram has made the most out of every opportunity this season.

Pass rusher Matthew Judon finished with two sacks and eight pressures on Sunday as the key piece in Baltimore’s blitz packages. The Ravens brought at least five rushers on 20 of Deshaun Watson’s 37 dropbacks on Sunday and notched four sacks on those plays. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale doesn’t have a single dominant edge rusher, but he’s comfortable bringing exotic blitzes because of the trust he has in his secondary. With Marlon Humphrey, Earl Thomas, and Jimmy Smith in place, the Ravens already had one of the most talented secondaries in football—and that was before they traded for Marcus Peters in mid-October. Peters has been a lights-out man-to-man corner since arriving in Baltimore in Week 7. And the Ravens have had the highest defensive DVOA and pressure percentage in the league in that span. The best defenses in football have perfect harmony between their rush and coverage units, and that’s exactly what the Ravens are getting right now. Much like the offense, Baltimore’s defense is built on a considered plan that’s being executed to a T, and it’s made the Ravens arguably the most complete team in the NFL.

3. The Texans’ blowout loss to the Ravens essentially ruins their shot at a first-round bye and calls into question Houston’s status as an AFC contender. By dropping to 6-4, the Texans are now effectively three games behind the Ravens for the no. 2 seed in the AFC and deadlocked with the Colts atop the AFC South. Thursday night’s matchup against Indy now looms large, but even if the Texans do edge out the Colts in the division, head coach Bill O’Brien’s team seems to be a notch below the AFC’s elite. Deshaun Watson and the offense will have better days than they did against Baltimore. Watson threw for just 169 yards on 29 attempts, and it was the first time all season that he’s failed to produce either a passing or rushing touchdown. Houston is likely getting wide receiver Will Fuller back from a hamstring injury next week, so the ceiling of this passing game is still extremely high.

The outlook for the defense isn’t quite as rosey. J.J. Watt’s season-ending pectoral injury in Week 8 was a crushing blow for a unit that lacks talent up front. And this group continues to scramble for answers at cornerback. After shipping a third-round pick to the Raiders in exchange for 2017 first-rounder Gareon Conley last month, the Texans claimed former Bucs first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves off waivers last week. With Bradley Roby likely returning soon after missing four games with a hamstring injury, Houston might finally have the personnel in place to field a complete secondary, but it could be too little too late for this group.

If Houston falls short of the postseason, it’ll be a major letdown for a team that made several aggressive moves this offseason. The Texans dealt two first-round picks for left tackle Laremy Tunsil in August and sent a fourth-round pick to the Browns in exchange for running back Duke Johnson. The good news for the Texans is that even if they lack draft capital for the next two years, whoever the team hires as GM this offseason—whether it be Patriots executive Nick Caserio or some other candidate—should have plenty of financial flexibility in 2020. Houston is projected to have more than $70 million in cap space next spring and could easily free up much more with a couple of logical cuts.

The majority of the offense is under contract for the next several seasons, including Hopkins. Houston’s offensive line has two rookie starters, and after signing Tunsil to an inevitable long-term deal, four of the five players will also be locked in. The defense is in much more flux, with starters Roby and Johnathan Joseph set to hit free agency, but the Conley and Hargreaves moves give the Texans a couple of highly drafted players who will hopefully benefit from new surroundings. If Houston decides that Hargreaves isn’t worth the $9.9 million rookie option he’ll be owed in 2020, the team can also cut him at no cost. The Texans’ huge swings this offseason will leave their new-look front office without many options in the draft, but a capable GM will still have the flexibility to bring this team closer to contention in 2020.

4. The Vikings’ huge second-half comeback against the Broncos was the mark of a great team. Minnesota had a nightmare first half against Denver on Sunday. Mike Zimmer’s group allowed 217 yards to an offense led by Brandon Allen, who was starting his second career game at quarterback. Kirk Cousins was sacked three times: two of those effectively ended Vikings drives and another resulted in a lost fumble. The Vikings trailed 20-0 at halftime, and a brutal loss to a 3-6 team seemed all but inevitable. Until it wasn’t.

Cousins was brilliant in the second half. He completed 18 of his 23 attempts for 261 yards and three touchdowns against a defense that had entered Week 11 ranked sixth in DVOA. Minnesota continues to roast opposing secondaries with play-action throws. Cousins used play-action on only five of his dropbacks on Sunday, but two of those led to touchdowns, including his 54-yard bomb to Stefon Diggs early in the fourth quarter. On that play, Minnesota faked an outside zone run to the right. Then Cousins rolled back to his left, reset the launch point of his throw, and found Diggs on a backside skinny post. That play design has been a staple of Gary Kubiak’s system for years, but moving the pocket to the left and running the action out of shotgun are two fun new wrinkles. Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has routinely dialed up calls that allow Cousins to take huge shots down the field. This week, it just took a couple quarters to get them.

5. The Cardinals’ upset bid of the Niners fell short on Sunday, but Kyler Murray seems to improve every week. Murray finished with just 150 yards passing on Sunday, but he still delivered several impressive throws against one of the league’s best pass defenses and added 67 yards and a touchdown on the ground. On a third-and-11 late in the first quarter, with the Niners’ front bearing down on him, Murray tossed a perfect strike to Pharoh Cooper for a 23-yard gain near the left sideline. His 22-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter came on a read play that was designed to take advantage of Nick Bosa’s aggressiveness on the edge -- and Murray was more than able to make him pay.

At 3-7-1, the Cardinals are having another trying season. But Murray and head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense have been rousing successes. After finishing with a historically terrible offensive DVOA in 2018, the Cardinals now rank ninth. That’s an incredible turnaround, and one that’s come without much turnover outside of the team’s coach and quarterback. Arizona has a long way to go in remaking its roster, but the pairing at the center of the franchise’s plan has plenty of potential.

6. The collapse of Colin Kaepernick’s league-organized workout is yet another example of the NFL bungling a potential PR win. The timing and details surrounding Kaepernick’s workout on Saturday in Atlanta never made much sense. Under the guise of giving the QB an opportunity to showcase his football readiness, the NFL gave both him and all 32 teams just four days’ notice. Once Kaepernick agreed, the NFL added more stipulations: The league stated that the media wouldn’t be allowed access or filming rights to the workout. Considering what he’s already endured in the past three years, a desire for transparency would already be grounds for Kaepernick to reject the NFL’s terms. But it turns out the league was also asking him to sign a waiver that would forfeit his rights to file a lawsuit claiming retaliation by teams for his initial collusion case or to bring another collusion case against the NFL. Kaepernick refused on both accounts, and with his representation and the league at odds, the entire thing fell apart just minutes before it was supposed to begin. Kaepernick’s side eventually announced that the workout was moving away from the Falcons’ Flowery Branch facility to a nearby high school to allow media members full access to the session.

After the workout was moved, eight teams reportedly sent scouts to the second location to watch Kaepernick throw. By all accounts, his arm strength hasn’t diminished much from his playing days, and he looks to be in game-ready shape. But this has never been about whether Kaepernick is talented enough to play in the league, and this weekend’s botched efforts were just another misstep by the NFL.

7. Tua Tagovailoa’s season-ending injury could change the landscape of the 2020 QB carousel. The Alabama star’s college career likely came to an end on Saturday after he dislocated his hip against Mississippi State. Now, the question turns to his both his long-term outlook and how his health will affect the 2020 draft. Hip injuries can have a long-lasting impact on a player’s career—just look at Bo Jackon, whose name has been thrown out as a cautionary tale in the days following Tua’s injury. The most important consideration right now is Tagovailoa’s health, but if teams believe this could affect him in 2020 and beyond, the calculus for many clubs will change this offseason.

The winless Bengals have the inside track for the no. 1 pick in next year’s draft, and if Tagovailoa is no longer a viable choice, Cincinnati will have limited options to find its QB of the future. LSU’s Joe Burrow could vault into the draft’s top spot, and if that happens, the tanking Dolphins may be the team left without a QB dance partner—which would considerably alter the timeline of Miami’s rebuild. If Tagovailoa isn’t picked in the first round, there’s a chance that other QBs, such as Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Washington’s Jacob Eason, Utah State’s Jordan Love, and Georgia’s Jake Fromm, could get pushed further up the board. With all of those possibilities on the table, teams that were hoping to grab a QB later in the first round might be more inclined to retain a veteran option as an insurance policy. And if that happens, what was expected to be a rabid free-agent and trade market could be colder than expected. Tagovailoa’s injury affects much more than the team that was going to draft him next spring. It’s a huge domino that could affect QB movement all around the league.

8. After yanking Mitchell Trubisky in Sunday’s loss to the Rams, Bears head coach Matt Nagy insisted that the choice had nothing to do with his quarterback’s most recent struggles. Trubisky was pulled late in the fourth quarter of Chicago’s 17-7 loss, and in the moment, it looked as though he and Nagy had a serious discussion on the sideline. On Sunday, Nagy said that Trubisky suffered a hip pointer injury on a sack in the second quarter, and that after talking with quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone, the head coach went to his QB and asked for a straight answer about how he was feeling. When Trubisky admitted that he was in pain, Nagy pulled the plug on his night. Going forward, any move involving Trubisky will be analyzed like the Zapruder film by Bears fans. Chicago’s offense was putrid again on Sunday, and it’s become clear that the staff’s lack of confidence in its quarterback has short-circuited this entire unit. Nagy’s stance on Sunday indicates that the Bears will keep Trubisky under center, but I’m not sure how much longer this team can afford to trot out a QB that the coaches—and likely much of the roster—has lost faith in.

9. Dak Prescott continued his fantastic season on Sunday by piling up 444 yards and three touchdowns against the Lions, and it’s time to recognize him as a legitimate MVP candidate. At 6-4, the Cowboys haven’t had the team success that the Ravens and Seahawks have this season, but Prescott has been every bit as valuable as Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson. Dallas entered Week 11 ranked no. 1 in offensive DVOA and no. 3 in passing DVOA. Prescott’s 67.7 completion percentage is actually 6.3 percentage points higher than his expected completion percentage—the third-largest difference in the NFL for QBs with at least 200 attempts. Prescott leads the league with 3,221 passing yards, which is only 664 fewer yards than he’s ever recorded in an entire season. And he’s on pace to finish with 5,153 yards. That would be the seventh-highest single-season total in NFL history.

Counting stats can be misleading, but consider this: Prescott is also averaging 8.8 yards per attempt. If he continues that pace, he would be only the fourth 5,000-yard passer in history to crack 8.5 Y/A in that same season. The three QBs who did it before him are Tom Brady (in 2011), Dan Marino (1984), and Patrick Mahomes (2018). Both Marino and Mahomes were named MVP those years, and Brady lost out only because Aaron Rodgers happened to lead the Packers to a 15-1 record on the strength of the most efficient passing season in NFL history. Prescott is having one of the most productive years the league has ever seen, and it should put him firmly in the MVP hunt.

10. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Raiders rookie defensive end Maxx Crosby finished with four sacks on Sunday and continues to look like a steal. Crosby’s monster day came against John Jerry, who was filling in at emergency left tackle for the Bengals, but the rookie also entered Week 11 with 25 pressures in Oakland’s first nine games. Coming from Eastern Michigan, Crosby entered the 2019 draft with concerns about his competition level and whether his slender frame could hold up against NFL tackles. But his ridiculous showing at the combine—where he scored in the 90th percentile or better in the 20-yard shuttle, three-cone drill, vertical jump, broad jump, and 40-yard dash—inspired Oakland to take a chance on him in the fourth round. That choice is already paying dividends. Crosby’s athleticism absolutely translates to the NFL, and moves like this strip-sack-causing cross-chop show that he’s already refining his skills as a pass rusher. With Josh Jacobs running all over defenses and Crosby getting after the QB, Mike Mayock’s first draft class has produced some excellent finds.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: This spot belongs to Lamar Jackson until further notice.