When the Rules Don’t Apply

by Josue Zelaya

The pass interference rule in the NFL has been the subject of controversy for the past two years. It became a huge issue for the league during last year’s NFC championship game between the New Orleans Saints vs. Los Angeles Rams. On a potential game winning drive, quarterback Drew Brees of the Saints attempted a pass to his wide receiver TommyLee Lewis, which was impeded by the Rams’ defender Nickell Robey-Coleman who never turned to make a play on the ball and blatantly tackled the receiver before the ball got there. According to the NFL rule book, “pass interference by either team when any act by a player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders an eligible player’s opportunity to catch the ball” (operations.nfl.com). The play in question met the requirements for pass interference. Yet, the referees who have final say on penalties during games decided the Rams’ player did not interfere with the Saints’ player. The Saints would eventually lose the game which meant their season and a chance to play in the Super Bowl ended, possibly because of a blatant missed call. The backlash from the missed call was universal and it made the league incompetant. The NFL is one of the biggest corporations in the world and anything that can affect its bottom line is a major issue, so it can benefit them to appease fans and players alike by fixing the pass interference rule.

The NFL decided during the off-season to modify the rules and attempt to prevent such a call from ever occurring again, especially in a pivotal game. The NFL decided to make all defensive and offensive pass interference penalties reviewable by coaches’ challenges during the past offseason. The league believed this new rule would prevent any controversies from occurring during big games. 

Now, halfway through the season, the need for the rule to be modified is glaring. The enforcement of the rules have emphasized the need to have the pass interference rule clarified. During the week six game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans, tight end Travis Kelce “rubbed” the Texans’ defender and allowed his teammate to catch the ball wide open and run for 52 yards. Offensive players “rub” defenders or impede their progress to allow their teammates to run wide open, but it is illegal. “Rubbing” is defending player blatantly is offensive pass interference, and the play that occurred should have been negated. The Texans’ head coach Bill O’Brien challenged the play, leading commentators and fans to think the play would be reversed and Kelce would be penalized. Instead, the officials upheld the ruling on the field which allowed the Chiefs to score on a touchdown drive. In a close game, a call can be the difference between winning and losing. 

Coaches on the NFL Competition Committee are also confused by the rule. The NFL Competition Committee is tasked with reviewing and improving the rules. They require clarification from the referees because every single referee views pass interference differently. A rule is meant to establish order, but this rule is causing more chaos than intended. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach and member of the NFL Competition Committee, has expressed his frustration and confusion with the rule. He has said in his weekly news conference to reporters, “I have no idea what it’s going to look like moving forward. If anybody does, I’d appreciate it. I don’t think any of us has a feel for what that looks like, and I’m just being honest. I don’t have any idea moving forward. It appears to be a moving target.” He continued, “It’s just frustrating as a football coach,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that are frustrating. We’re trying to get it right. It’s just difficult to nail down at this juncture“ (trilive.com). If head coaches in the league have trouble interpreting the rule then how are fans expected to not backlash against the league and rule? 

The league and NFL Competition Committee will try to find solutions to improve the rule, but changes will occur until the offseason. The rule was meant to be a solution to the “human error” part of refereeingIt was supposed to be a form of VAR from soccer for the NFL. The league hoped the pass interference rule would eliminate mistakes and thus eliminate any criticism the referees would receive, but it has created more criticism than intended. Referees are now being blamed for affecting games more than ever. Fans pay to see elite athletes compete to their maximum capacity until a victor is declared, but the experience is being ruined by the pass interference rule by allowing the referees to affect the outcome. Referees are paid to enforce the rules, but the quick reactionary rule change put them in a tough situation. In the eyes of fans, referees are to blame for their calls, but the NFL is the true culprit. The NFL will have to tweak the pass interference rule this offseason in order to please everyone. It will help referees be more consistent with their calls. Mistakes are normal, we are all humans as the old cliche states, but in this era when technology is widely available and it can help eliminate many of those mistakes why not take advantage of it. The league will look to do that after this season. Hopefully, the pass interference rule will not affect any teams in the playoffs. But most likely it will give one team a huge advantage during a playoff game. It will put them in a more favorable spot to win the game, which will again cause a huge uproar from fans of football and sports. Changes to the rule will have to occur in order to quiet criticisms and to give fans the best possible experience. The pass interference rule is a good idea to avoid major mistakes, but it’s only a beginning. Hopefully the end result will be one that everyone can agree is best for the league and its fans.

Josue Zelaya is a Kinesiology major at HBU. He enjoys film and music on his downtime. He loves to make people laugh and smile.

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