Sunday was a frustrating day at work for DeAndre Hopkins. The Texans were held scoreless until midway through the fourth quarter and ultimately crushed 41-7, but the game almost played out differently. With just under six minutes left in the first quarter and the game scoreless, the Texans kept their offense on the field for a fourth-and-2 at the Baltimore 33. Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson rifled a pass into the end zone for Hopkins, but cornerback Marlon Humphrey broke up the play while covering him like a Rick Owens blazer.
Despite Hopkins’s pleas to referees, no penalty flag came for defensive pass interference.
Texans head coach Bill O’Brien challenged the play, seeking a pass interference penalty, something allowed for the first time this year after an offseason rule change made the penalty reviewable. It was early in the game, but the stakes were huge. Winning the challenge would have given the Texans the ball with a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Losing meant the Texans would turn the ball over on downs. After vice president of officiating Al Riveron’s team reviewed the call remotely in New York, the ruling that no penalty occurred was upheld. Announcer Dan Fouts couldn’t believe the play was not penalized.
“There’s contact with the jersey, that’s pass interference to begin with,” Fouts said after the play was upheld. “And then the bump there, the grab here, then comes the ball. Check, check, check, pass interference. I just don’t understand how they could not call that pass interference when there is three instances on one play that the defensive back, Humphrey, interfered with Hopkins.”
The reaction was similar on the RedZone channel.
“Well guys, if this one is not going to get overturned, I don’t know what it’s going to take,” host Scott Hanson said. “He was tugging on his jersey before and he’s all over him.”
Then the floodgates opened on social media about Humphrey’s play (if only his cat’s Instagram got a fraction as much attention).
On a 4th down play, DeAndre Hopkins was clearly and obviously interfered with by Marlon Humphrey. No flag was called.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) November 17, 2019
Bill O'Brien challenged. Upon further review, the ref decided it was not a penalty.
If the NFL is ever going to be serious about challenging a non call of PI..then they HAVE to call that on Marlon Humphrey against Deandre Hopkins— trey wingo (@wingoz) November 17, 2019
If this is not pass interference, I don't know what pass interference is. Wasn't called interference on the field, but Bill O'Brien is challenging. Defender is literally hanging on DeAndre Hopkins before the ball arrives #Texans #Ravens pic.twitter.com/rz8QLpSSYW— John Breech (@johnbreech) November 17, 2019
But none of the tweets about the play were more important or to the point than one from Hopkins himself.
“As a leader in the NFL, we need someone new in New York deciding calls,” Hopkins tweeted after the game.
That “someone” was a reference to senior VP of officiating Al Riveron’s team, which oversees replay review remotely from New York City this season—a change from the old system in which referees looked at replays under the hood on the sideline.
The Hopkins play is the latest and loudest example that making pass interference reviewable was a mistake, but it won’t be the last. Coaches are confused, players are perplexed, and fans are furious. This was predictable. Not only did the rule change not fix the original issues that arose after refs missed a blatant penalty in January’s NFC championship game, it created a whole new set of problems.
Every football fan knows what sparked the pass interference rule change, but it’s worth recounting. Late in the NFC championship game, the Saints faced a third-and-10 13 yards from the end zone. Drew Brees threw a pass to Tommylee Lewis, but the Saints receiver was leveled by Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman before the ball arrived.
Incredibly, the referees did not call pass interference. The Saints went on to lose the game in overtime. New Orleans’s fans, players, and coaches did not take this situation well. “Much like normal people, I sat and probably didn’t come out of my room,” head coach Sean Payton told reporters in January. “I ate Jeni’s ice cream and watched Netflix for three straight days.”
Two months after the Saints lost, Payton began an unusually aggressive campaign to create a rule change that could prevent another team from losing the way his did. He convinced commissioner Roger Goodell to support him. By the time the vote came in March, 31 of 32 owners agreed to make pass interference reviewable. As is customary with new rule changes, it was approved for a one-year trial period.
The change was a reactive Band-Aid, not a proactive plan to not get cut again. It also missed the larger point: Fans were angry that referees missed a penalty that affected the outcome of the NFC championship game, but nobody cared that the penalty in question was specifically pass interference.
“What if the same type of play happened but it was [offensive] holding that they blatantly missed?” Broncos head coach Vic Fangio asked The Athletic’s Nicki Jhabvala this week. “Would we be reviewing holding instead of pass interference?”
Reviewing pass interference doesn’t solve much, and it creates a new problem. In the past, replay review was mostly used for objective issues: Did the ball cross the white line? Was a player’s knee touching the ground? Were 12 men on the field? Now the league has introduced pass interference, which is a subjective call, to the process. Is there clear and obvious visual evidence that the defender initiated contact against the receiver that significantly hindered his ability to catch the ball? Understanding the question is exhausting, never mind answering it.
“I have said since the very beginning this rule was going to have a lot of failure points in it,” said Ben Austro, the founder and editor-in-chief of the NFL refereeing–focused website Football Zebras. “You have the ‘clear and obvious’ standard that comes from replay, you have the ‘significantly hinders’ aspect from pass interference, and it’s like two gears that don’t mesh. So you’re trying to get this rule and trying to squeeze it into the replay box and it just isn’t working.”
The league made the mistake of wading into subjective territory, and it chose the worst penalty possible to experiment on. Overturning pass interference consistently is difficult because pass interference is not called with any consistency. Robey-Coleman told The Ringer in August that some referee crews are strict, while some let players play. Just about all of the crews are more lenient in big games, like the NFC championship, than they are midseason. Robey-Coleman also said that some pass interference calls are context-dependent, like foul calls in basketball. Small defenders can get away with more on bigger receivers, and stars usually earn calls that lesser players would not. (The Hopkins play is an obvious exception.) Riveron’s job when looking at a replay review is to assume the call on the field is correct and to look for “clear and obvious” visual evidence that the referee was wrong. But referees have different standards and allow different levels of contact between players, so saying it’s “obvious” that a referee was wrong is difficult.
“I believe [pass interference is the] most highly subjective call in football,” former referee and current NBC rules analyst Terry McAulay told The Ringer in July. “And you’re going to subject it to an analysis based on super slow-motion HD replay.”
There were more than 17,600 pass plays in the 2018 regular season. It’s not surprising that the league has had a hard time drawing the line in a place everyone agrees. But there seemed to be little fear among coaches the change could become a problem when owners passed the rule.
“Maybe that play in the championship game was the Titanic, and it led to this moment,” Sean Payton told NBC’s Peter King in March. “But what happened this week was about making the game better. I truly believe we did.”
Almost three-quarters of the way through the first season with these changes, it seems like that would be the minority opinion. In the first three weeks of the season, there were 21 combined offensive and defensive pass interference coaches challenges. Four of those 21 (19 percent) were successful. But from Week 4 to Week 10, just one of 33 coaches challenges were successful (3 percent). Many seemingly obvious examples of pass interference that went uncalled were challenged but not overturned on replay. One example is this Week 6 play when Patriots defensive back Jonathan Jones prevented a catch by pinning Giants receiver Golden Tate’s arm. No flag was thrown on the play, and the review upheld the no penalty call.
#NFL officials have gone rogue. 100-percent. This wasn’t called on the field and then wasn’t changed after it was flagged by the #Giants. So they ruled TWICE that this wasn’t defensive pass interference. Which is just blatantly wrong and a purposeful refusal to change the call. pic.twitter.com/BY2rRE6gQc— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) October 11, 2019
Riveron raised the bar for overturning pass interference challenges around the same time that he essentially told the refs to chill about calling a specific holding penalty in Week 3. This abrupt midseason change in what would be overturned led multiple coaches to say they do not understand what pass interference is anymore.
“I don’t think any of us have a feel for what that looks like,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, a member of the competition committee who helped expand replay review to include pass interference, said about the calls being overturned in October. “I’m just being honest. I don’t have any idea what I’m going to do moving forward because it appears to be a moving target.”
After 32 of 33 pass interference challenges failed from Week 4 through Week 10, coaches seemed to be convinced they’d be better off not challenging the play. Sunday upended that newfound wisdom. The noncall against Hopkins was followed by two plays later in the day that were both reversed. Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury challenged a play looking for a flag against 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, who seemed to drag down Cardinals receiver Christian Kirk.
Richard Sherman basically tackling Christian Kirk while the ball simultaneously bounces off his helmet is amusing. pic.twitter.com/upYhnJxVyB— Jake Montero (@jakemmontero) November 18, 2019
After Riveron’s review, a penalty was called on Sherman. Rather than facing a fourth-and-7 at the San Francisco 44-yard line, the Cardinals got a first-and-goal at the 49ers’ 3-yard line.
“I was shocked myself,” Kingsbury said on a radio station about winning the challenge, according to the official team website.
Kingsbury’s challenge was just the third successful pass interference reversal since September. The fourth came a couple of hours later in the fourth quarter of the Jets-Washington game, when Jets head coach Adam Gase challenged an offensive pass interference penalty and won. Reversing those calls hours after the Hopkins play only created more confusion about what counts as pass interference.
“Ourselves [at Football Zebras] and some of the other rules experts out there are really kind of throwing our hands in the air and saying, ‘Well, this is how I would rule, but we really just don’t know how it’s coming out,’” Austro said.
Still, Austro believes there is one key thing to keep in mind when understanding why Riveron upholds some plays and not others: The goal is not to re-officiate the play. Instead, Riveron assumes the call is correct going into the replay, then assesses whether there is enough evidence to support the referee’s judgment. Austro says the most clear instances that have led to replay reversals are not assessing degrees of interference, but reversing a call on something called on the field that clearly did or did not happen.
“It’s more of these situations that I see is it’s [a player] whiffs on a contact [they were flagged for],” Austro says. “Well, you can see that didn’t happen, so you’re going to pick up a flag. Or in one case with the Jets where they had it going the wrong way, they said the contact was initiated by the receiver when it was by the defender. Those are really plain, in your face, and can be reversed.”
John Elway, the Broncos president of football operations and a member of the NFL’s competition committee, said this week that the rule was for the most egregious pass interference examples but the competition committee might revisit the subject this offseason.
“They’re only going to overturn things that are absolutely blatant,” Elway said in an interview with the Broncos’ official website, according to The Athletic’s Jhabvala. “The reason the rule went in was to prevent any play like happened in the [NFC] championship game last year with New Orleans and the Rams. To try to eliminate that blatant pass interference.”
Good intentions led to the expansion of replay review to include pass interference, but that change paved a road that few saw potentially leading to situations like the Hopkins nonreversal on Sunday. The competition committee will likely look at replay again this offseason and will have to decide whether they want to scrap these reviews altogether, save them for rare instances, or even expand them to include other penalties. “I’m sure we’ll talk about [pass interference] again,” Elway said. “You know, a lot of times what comes out of the committee is not what ends up taking effect during the year.”