It’s been 45 minutes since the game clock ran out on the Vikings’ 21–16 loss to the Packers, and Stefon Diggs sits at his locker, completely alone. He’s finally taken off his jersey and shoulder pads, but otherwise is still dressed in his uniform. Dirt and grass are crusted onto his purple socks and has flaked off on the carpet around him. Equipment staff scurry about picking up the last bags left and the rest of his Minnesota teammates have showered, dressed, and rolled their carry-on sized suitcases down the narrow hallway out of the visitor’s locker room to the team bus.
But the Vikings receiver is taking this loss hard. And you probably would too, if you had a touchdown catch put on the scoreboard and then painfully reversed. Diggs wasn’t at fault on the play in question, and there were plenty of other places during the game in which Minnesota could have made up the point difference, but it still bothers him.
“You tell me what happened,” he says. “I honestly don't know.”
In short: the Vikings fell victim to the offseason rule change that makes pass interference calls and non-calls reviewable by instant replay. This was the first time that a touchdown had been reversed after the booth called for a review with less than two minutes left in the half.
It was first-and-goal at the three-yard line for the Vikings with 1:12 left in the second half, and Diggs caught a touchdown pass to put the score at 21-14, Green Bay still leading. As Vikings players celebrated their second touchdown, replay official Terri Valenti initiated a review of the play from the press box. Down on the field, players, and even some officials, were confused. Referee John Hussey accidentally left his microphone on, which caught him saying, “Tell me why we're stopping the game, please.”
With the rule change, any interference-related reviews are subject to the coaches challenge system for the first 28 minutes of the half, but in the final two minutes of each half, a pass interference review is initiated by the replay official. The officials overturned the touchdown with a pass interference call, which set the Vikings back 10 yards. Minnesota ultimately settled for a field goal after failing to score again.
— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) September 15, 2019
When the penalty was called, the officials didn’t name a specific player, but it was clear the only player making contact on a Packers defender was running back Dalvin Cook. Cook aligned in a three-receiver bunch to the right of the formation and made contact with two different defenders on the play as he ran across the action to the left. The second player he made contact with was Packers safety Darnell Savage, who was running in the opposite direction, towards the area of the endzone where Diggs made the play. It looked like a typical pick play in the red zone, many of which go uncalled when receivers make contact with defenders. But eligible receivers are not allowed to make contact with defending players more than a yard beyond the line of scrimmage before the ball is caught.
Fox Sports rules analyst Dean Blandino was surprised that the replay official initiated a review, because Cook’s contact is in a gray area where it might be incidental. “He gets jammed, but is he really blocking?” Blandino asked. “It does not appear to be clear and obvious.”
“I feel like they went the extra mile trying to emphasize it as a whole,” Diggs says. “You just have to watch the game and figure out what is what, because I don't know the calls anymore.”
Cook, who was otherwise brilliant in this game, 154 yards including a 75-yard touchdown run, didn’t have much to add on the penalty either. “I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t even know it was on me. I can’t describe it.”
A few lockers down from Cook, rookie running back Alexander Mattison also shook his head at the call. “It's surprising,” he says. “We didn't expect that, especially in the situation that it was, tight, within five yards, a lot of different things that went on in that play that you didn't think they would call that.”
Diggs said he didn’t get any explanation from officials during the game. “They don't say sh--,” he says. “We just have to eat it.”
With 23 seconds left in the second quarter, Diggs himself was called for offensive pass interference on a 15-yard reception. It was the beginning of a drive that might have ended the half with a field goal for the Vikings, had his completion stood. When the game went to halftime, Diggs personally sought out field judge Allen Baynes to ask him what he was doing wrong. “He said, ‘You can’t close fists, use your shoulder, you can’t extend your arm,’” Diggs says.
When Diggs finally found the end zone in the third quarter, he ripped off his helmet, screamed (it didn’t take a skilled lip reader to get an idea of the profanity he shouted) and paced the endzone, visibly unleashing his frustration from the earlier calls. That earned him a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct, adding 30 yards to the extra point attempt, making it a 49-yard PAT, which Vikings kicker Dan Bailey missed. (There’s another missed point in the game.)
“You saw how the game was going on,” Diggs said. “I ain’t saying no names, but I feel like the people wearing black and white, you know? You saw how it was going. I had the early situation with the PI and then at the end of the half. Y’all saw what happened.”
After the game, senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron confirmed the offensive pass interference was in fact called on Cook and offered an explanation for the play, which had Vikings fans taking to Twitter in a huff during the game.
“Every time, by rule, there’s a score of a turnover, here in New York we automatically take a look at all aspects of the play, which this year includes offensive and defensive pass interference. After we looked at the play, we saw clear and obvious visual evidence that No. 33 [Cook] significantly hinders the opponent while the ball is still in the air. Therefore, we negate the score and call offensive pass interference here from New York and penalize them 10 yards.”
Riveron clarified that the booth would have reviewed the play even if it hadn’t been a scoring play because it was within the final two minutes of the half.
Over in Green Bay’s locker room, CB Tramon Williams, playing in his 13th NFL season, admitted he was also stunned by the reversal. Williams was part of the play, but on the other side of the endzone, so he didn’t get a good look at it until the replay played on the video screen.
“Truthfully, I didn't know how far the pass interference rule was going to go,” he says. “I thought they were just reviewing something, I don't know exactly what they were reviewing but for them to go that far, it's pretty good because in the red zone, a lot of teams like to run pick routes. That's how they get open, everything happens fast. For the officials to go back and be able to look at that, it is going to be really good for us. It is one of the rules that may help us out.”
Offenses have been getting away with pick plays in the red zone for so long, this feels like a defensive back’s big break. “Offenses used to never get called [for that],” Savage says. “Most of the time people when offenses do a pick route, they will actually run routes. If you look like you have no intention of running a route, and you just pick your person out, they normally don’t call that, but it is what it is.”
As for the Vikings offense, they’ll certainly review this play and see if they can make adjustments, like selling the route better, or waiting to make contact until after the ball has been caught. “I'm not sure there is much he could have done differently,” Mattison says. “It's a natural situation to play, [Cook] was running a route and the safety was there.”
The safety in question, Savage, had one suggestion for the Vikings. “I mean, you could run the actual route,” he said. “But that's become a big part of everyone's game in the red zone. As DBs we have to fight through it.”
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