Replay review is now available for defensive pass interference calls and non-calls. It’s not available for calls and non-calls of illegal contact. And this donut hole was exposed for the first time on Thursday night, in the Buccaneers-Panthers game.
Carolina had embarked on a drive that would end with a failed fourth-and-short play, and coach Ron Rivera challenged with 2:19 to play a non-call of defensive pass interference after Tampa defensive back Carlton Davis chucked receiver Curtis Samuel more than five yards from the line of scrimmage. The evidence clearly and obviously showed contact initiated by Davis, who had bitten on a double move and jammed Samuel after he accelerated.
Absent clear and obvious evidence that the ball was in the air when the contact happened (and the evidence was indeed neither clear nor obvious), the replay process can’t result in a pass interference foul. So the ruling on the field stood, and the Bucs got away with a blatant (and smart, given that Davis could have been burned for a touchdown) illegal contact foul.
“Well, I thought when the ball was in the air and the guy was still making contact, I thought that was the definition of pass interference,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera told reporters after the game. “I don’t think it matters where the contact starts, but if the guy’s still contacting him while the ball’s in the air I assume that’s what pass interference was. I guess I’ll just have to go back and look at the rulebook just to make sure.”
He actually need to look only at the film. The contact wasn’t continuous, and the ball wasn’t clearly and obviously out of quarterback Cam Newton‘s hand while the players were engaged, so the ruling on the field wasn’t clearly and obviously wrong.
So what did the officials tell Rivera?
“That you can’t challenge illegal contact,” Rivera said. “I said, ‘No, I was challenging pass interference.’ I thought when the guy was riding him while the ball was in the air that would be pass interference, even though the contact started while the ball was still in his hand.”
That would be the case, if the contact clearly and obviously continued beyond the moment the ball was in the air. But it wasn’t.
So, basically, the officials missed a blatant illegal contact foul, and the replay process and its aftermath served only to highlight the error.
Eventually, these same facts will play out with the officials calling defensive pass interference, and with the evidence clearly and obviously showing the ball in the hands of the quarterback at the time the contact happened. Which will result in the flag for pass interference being picked up with no remedy for the illegal contact.
This could prompt officials to err on the side of calling illegal contact instead of defensive pass interference, in close cases. Last night, illegal contact definitely should have been called.