The catch rule defined a terrible period in NFL officiating. The pass interference era might be worse.

The remedy to prevent an officiating disaster like last season's no-call in the NFC championship game doesn't appear to be working this season in the NFL. (AP)
The remedy to prevent an officiating disaster like last season's no-call in the NFC championship game doesn't appear to be working this season in the NFL. (AP)

For the better part of a decade, the NFL took a simple aspect of football — a catch — and transformed it into one of the most controversial officiating albatrosses in league history. Whether it was coaching staffs, front offices, players or entire fan bases, seemingly every layer of the NFL experience became mired in the nonsense of the most basic question.

When is a catch actually a catch?

For years, the answer was ever-changing and always frustrating. Once it was resolved with a sensible rules tweak in 2018, you figured (or at least hoped) the NFL couldn’t walk itself into another officiating problem that was so mind-numbing. Yet here we are six weeks into the 2019 season, with pass interference issues rapidly becoming the next exhausting frontier in NFL officiating.

Gone are the days of wondering, “Did he control it going to the ground?”

That has been replaced by an even more maddening eyeball test: “What is clear and obvious visual evidence?”

It appears that NFL officials are becoming less certain of that latter point as the season moves on. Flags are getting thrown when they shouldn’t be. Others are getting pocketed when seemingly everyone in the stadium not wearing zebra stripes saw an infraction. And even when coaches are using the challenge system they battled for in the offseason, the process is going sideways to the point of rendering the new rule completely useless. To the point that even when it’s obvious officials have made the wrong call on the field, the proper correction is nullified by senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron, who makes the final call from his throne in New York and apparently refuses to give head coaches the power to actually reverse mistakes.

That is the summary of what happened in Week 6. A three-day span from Thursday to Sunday that packed in more complaints about pass interference interpretations than the catch rule would produce in a month. If this continues, it could end up being the single-most frustrating officiating season in league history. Not only are fans now looking for pass interference mistakes, they’re often correct when they see them. That is going to drive everyone even crazier because the mechanism in place for fixing this problem is being hijacked by Riveron. Coaches know it. Executives know it. And commissioner Roger Goodell is going to get asked about it from here until his pending retirement – or the entire pass interference challenge is struck down next offseason. Whichever comes first.

That’s how big of a mess this is. So bad it’s going to make fans pine for the simpler days of when they argued about whether Dez Bryant caught it.

If you don’t believe that, let’s look at the troubling snapshot of Week 6 for pass interference challenges. A period that began with the New York GiantsGolden Tate clearly being interfered with in a 35-14 loss to the New England Patriots in front of a national “Thursday Night Football” audience — only to have the no-call inexplicably upheld by Riveron after a challenge flag from Giants head coach Pat Shurmur. That was a bad start. It got worse.

Here’s a look at three more that illustrated how the pass interference problems are likely (but differently) going to plague future games. Two of them happened in the same game and involved the same player — Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce:

  • In the first quarter of the Chiefs’ 31-24 home loss to the Houston Texans, Kelce picked Texans safety Jahleel Addae, whose assignment was to shadow running back Darrel Williams as he leaked into the flat on a pass play. It was a clear case of offensive pass interference on Kelce, who bodied Addae with a block before the ball left the hand of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The result was Williams catching a pass with a 52-yard sideline runway to the end zone. The Texans threw a challenge flag, correctly arguing that offensive pass interference had occurred. Once again, Riveron upheld the no-call, continuing a trend this season of Riveron siding with judgement calls that were proven incorrect using instant replay.

  • In the second quarter of the same game, Kelce attempted to put a double move on a Texans defender, who wrestled him around the neck beyond the first 5 yards of the line of scrimmage and thew him to the ground. A flag was thrown, appearing to indicate either pass interference or holding. After the contact occurred, Mahomes threw the ball into the end zone, resulting in his first interception of the season. As it unfolded, it looked like Mahomes saw the contact against Kelce and threw the ball away while expecting the flag.

    Inexplicably, officials picked up the flag and allowed the interception to stand, saying that it couldn’t be a hold because the ball was in the air when the contact occurred (it wasn’t), and it couldn’t be interference because Kelce wasn’t the intended target on the pass. The latter also meant Chiefs head coach Andy Reid couldn’t challenge the play under the new pass interference rules. Replays showed Kelce had clearly been held on the play. Yet it was neither reviewable pass interference nor a hold — which means the officials blew the call altogether.

  • In the third quarter of the Dallas Cowboys’ 24-22 loss to the New York Jets, a Jason Witten touchdown catch was nullified after officials incorrectly called offensive pass interference on wideout Cedrick Wilson in the end zone. On replay, it was clear that Wilson went vertical on his route and was jammed by a Jets defender, creating a traffic jam that might have looked like a pick play. Replay showed it wasn’t, but Garrett chose not to challenge the call — most likely because he has already lost challenges. It appeared to be an example of coaches knowing that even correct challenges are unlikely to be overturned this season, leaving them in limbo over when they should or shouldn’t risk a timeout with a challenge.

Those three plays — along with the Thursday night gaffe involving Tate — were hardly the only problems that arose with pass interference and judgment calls over the weekend. But they were a solid cross-section that is illustrating obvious issues. First and foremost, Riveron isn’t correctly overturning plays by the letter of the rule book. Secondly, coaches are seeing this and starting to keep their challenge flags at bay because they know the rule isn’t working the way it was intended. And finally, officials continue to make mistakes on judgement calls and there still is no remedy that adequately addresses the moments when coaches are in the right for expecting a better call.

And here’s the part about all of this that makes it more frustrating than the catch rule ever was: A consensus is forming across the league that pass interference might get overturned on any given challenge, if the contact is egregious enough or if it’s a moment that could impact the outcome of something important — like the NFC title game debacle between the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams that triggered the coaching challenge to be created.

There’s no way to underscore how absurd that standard is without repeating it: An obvious wrong call might be overturned if it’s either “wrong enough” to look atrocious or happens in a game that matters. Otherwise, wrong calls will be allowed to stand.

And we thought determining an NFL catch before the 2018 season was frustrating?

At no point during all the years of horrible “did he catch it” arguments did a league official say “we know that’s a catch but we’re going to say it isn’t just because we can.” In effect, that’s what the NFL is saying here — that it has a rule that exists sometimes but not others, with the determination being unknown and based upon how someone like Riveron feels about it. Basically, it’s open to interpretation and an always changing set of circumstances that nobody is saying out loud. This makes Riveron sound like the head of judging for Olympic figure skating and the NFL sound like a sport that has rules based more on perception than a hard definition.

Let’s go ahead and admit it. The coach’s challenge is a complete failure because we don’t have any idea when or where it can be applied to the hardened guidelines of what pass interference is in the rulebook. “Clear and obvious evidence” is more a determination of Riveron’s personal palate, like he’s a sommelier sorting out which wine and cheese pairings are proper for the occasion.

Nobody in the NFL should be happy about this, especially the coaches who fought for this challenge to make the game more dependably tied to the rule book. Riveron is not allowing it to work and his bosses in the league office aren’t stepping in. All of this has the makings of an argument that is going to last for years.

From one bad era of officiating to another — and the rest of us helpless to challenge it.

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