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Calling Interference on Pass Interference

The current interpretation of pass-related penalties is changing games more than it should

Let’s try and solve the pass interference quandary.

A series of big pass interference calls on the defense during Week 12 has led to the latest outcry from fans and media members about changing the rules for these penalties. The 49ers-Ravens game turned on a 50-yard pass interference call against Tarell Brown that seemed innocuous. Reggie Wayne picked up 42 yards and set up the first Colts touchdown on Sunday when Captain Munnerlyn struggled to keep up with him. Then Josh Wilson allowed 44 yards on a pass interference call that even color commentator Jim Mora couldn’t find fault with. The issue will fade when there aren’t three noticeably large calls next week, but this comes up at one point or another each season.

The sad truth is that there’s no perfect solution to the issue of pass interference. We know that the current system is flawed, but is it the best-suited penalty for the crime? We may not be able to fix pass interference, but we can go through the various proposals floating around these days to figure out the most accurate punishment for the crime.

The Current System

Pros: Adjusts for the impact of pass interference penalties proportionally, so a penalty committed on a 50-yard bomb is rightfully treated as more meaningful than one on a 2-yard out pattern.

Cons: No adjustments for intent or severity, so there’s no way to legislate between tackling an open receiver and getting feet entangled. Refs unsure of a call that could essentially set up a touchdown have no middle ground to work with.

The College Football System

The New Rule: A pass interference penalty places the ball at the spot of the foul for infractions within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. Any foul committed past 15 yards results in a 15-yard penalty.

Pros: Still adjusts for the proportion of yardage prevented by the penalty, but places a cap on the total so that teams can’t just ride one bad call into a touchdown.

Cons: Defensive backs who get beat 50 yards downfield have all the motivation in the world to just bowl over a receiver and take a 15-yard penalty. Questionable pass interference calls under 15 yards still result in first downs.

Is It Better Than the Current System?: No. The issue of beaten defensive backs waylaying open receivers hasn’t been a problem in college, but it’s because college defensive backs simply aren’t as good as the guys in the pros. Players are wide-open far less frequently in the NFL, and while players still get a step or two and catch bombs, there are far more plays in which defensive backs get lost and have to desperately try to catch up with a receiver and locate the ball on the fly. In those cases, defensive backs will be coached to tackle their receivers and take the 15-yard penalty. It won’t happen every time, but this will happen frequently enough that we’ll all be longing for the old pass interference rules before long.

The 5/15 Rule

The New Rule: This rule would create two tiers of pass interference penalties, much like the minor/major face mask rules that used to exist in the NFL. The five-yard “minor” pass interference call would move the ball five yards from the line of scrimmage without giving the team an automatic first down, while the 15-yard “major” pass interference call would move the ball 15 yards from the line of scrimmage and create a new set of downs.

Pros: Referees would be able to decide on the severity of pass interference and make calls that more accurately reflect the foul in question.

Cons: As it turns out, referees are pretty terrible at making judgment calls without replay, which is one of the reasons why the NFL got rid of the minor/major face mask distinction in the first place. Defensive backs would still be motivated to take out open receivers downfield, since giving up 15 yards is preferable to allowing 50 and a touchdown.

Is It Better Than the Current System?: Slightly. Forty-plus-yard penalties coming on the sort of slight contact initiated by Wilson on Sunday are absurd, and giving the offense five yards with a chance to retry the down seems a lot fairer to me. On the other hand, we would still have to deal with the NFL’s smarter, more athletic defensive backs taking out receivers when they get beat. And referees would have to make tough decisions on the fly. Clearly, that isn’t ideal.

The Flagrant Pass Interference

The New Rule: In addition to the five-yard and 15-yard options available to the referee in the 5/15 Rule from above, referees would have the option to flag defenders for a “flagrant” pass interference penalty. This third level would come into play when a defender commits a pass interference penalty as the last man separating the receiver from the end zone, or if he committed an unnecessary roughness or unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in an attempt to commit deliberate pass interference, regardless of whether he was the last line of defense before the end zone. The offending team would be penalized at the spot of the foul plus half the distance to its goal line, so if Team A committed a flagrant PI on its own 30-yard line, Team B would then get the ball on Team A’s 15-yard line.

Pros: We’ve got just about every situation covered. Players who commit pass interference will be punished, but field-shifting pass interference calls like the ones we saw this past week will happen only in the extreme circumstances, which is exactly when they should occur. The debates about what constitutes a flagrant PI versus a standard 15-yard PI should be fun.

Cons: The system is overly complex, and referees would have to decide between three different pass interference types on the fly while keeping track of whether a receiver was behind the last defender. This may be a judgment call that would work better with replay and a video official attached to it, which would slow down the game even further. Some plays would still qualify as flagrant PI even if they were ticky-tack calls. The concept owes something to the idea of the “professional foul” in soccer, and applying a soccer rule to football might cause some fans to break out into hives.

Is It Better Than the Current System?: Clearly. There would still be controversial decisions under this three-tiered pass interference setup, but it seems like the most frustrating iteration of the pass interference penalty — the questionable call that produces an enormous change in field position — would go away.

Louis (Mistreating)

On the other hand, amidst the annals of NFL penalties that were committed scot-free, we bring you the wise decision made by Bears offensive lineman Lance Louis on Sunday. With Raiders linebacker Kamerion Wimbley rumbling down the field with a gift from backup Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie, Louis had to tackle Wimbley inside his own 10-yard line to save a touchdown.

What did Louis do? Why, he horse-collared Wimbley with his one free arm while using every single ounce of his might. That’s an extremely dangerous play, since Wimbley might end up with a broken leg if he doesn’t fall the right way. But it’s essentially a free opportunity for Louis to commit a penalty, since the result is half the distance to the goal line. Since Louis made the tackle on the 8-yard line, it only cost his team four yards while giving him a much better shot at taking down Wimbley.

For all the belly-aching about defensive pass interference penalties costing teams yardage, penalties with no downside like Louis’s illegal tackle are far more dangerous. Because the Raiders ended up kicking a field goal instead of scoring a touchdown, Louis saved his team four points by committing a penalty with no downside. The NFL needs to find a way to legislate this low-risk, high-reward sort of penalty before they worry about fixing pass interference penalties. To again steal from the professional foul rule in soccer, if a player commits a personal foul that clearly prevents a player with the ball from scoring a touchdown, he should be ejected.

Pack? Rats.

When we last analyzed the chances of Green Bay going 16-0 this season, our simple methodology found that the Packers had just a 4.3 percent chance of finishing the regular season undefeated. Their biggest obstacle appeared to be a difficult matchup on the road with a motivated Lions team on Thanksgiving. Oops.

Unquestionably, the Packers’ chances of going 16-0 have risen. How dramatically? Well, let’s look at the numbers.

Since our initial look at their future following an 8-0 start, the Packers have gone 3-0 in mostly impressive fashion, outscoring their three opponents by a total of 59 points. That’s improved their point differential and made them look like a much more dominant team by our numbers; with a 155-point gap between their points for and points allowed, they have the 17th-best point differential through 11 games among post-merger teams. That helps their win expectancy in the log-5 model we’re using to simulate games, but it’s still the second-worst point differential amongst the ten teams since the merger that started 11-0, ahead of only the 2009 Colts.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that many of those 11-0 teams had a softer finish to their schedule than the one the Packers are about to enjoy. They have just two road games left, with matchups against the Giants — who have a point differential of zero and a history of second-half collapses under Tom Coughlin — and the Chiefs, who will start either Tyler Palko or Kyle Orton after three weeks in their system. The Packers will also get to play the Bears without the presence of Jay Cutler in the lineup, something our numbers aren’t accounting for.

As a result, the Packers are just about a 3-to-1 favorite or better in every one of their upcoming matchups. They also only have to win five games instead of the eight games we were measuring previously, so our estimate is about to rise dramatically. After plugging in new prorated statistics for each team, the Packers currently have a 34.7 percent chance of finishing the season 16-0.

You might suggest that the estimate for the Bears with Caleb Hanie behind center (75.8 percent win probability) is very generous to Chicago, but there are other factors on the Packers’ side that we’re not considering here. In a way, the 49ers’ loss to the Ravens on Thanksgiving night might have hurt the Packers’ chances of going 16-0. With a two-game lead on 9-2 San Francisco in the race for the no. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, a 15-0 Packers team would enter Week 17 against the Lions with the top seed locked up and virtually nothing to play for. They would also be facing a Lions team that will very likely be playing for their playoff lives. In that scenario, the Packers would certainly have to consider resting veterans like Charles Woodson in a meaningless final game of the year. They could even choose to rest Aaron Rodgers for all or perhaps part of the game, just like the Colts did with Peyton Manning in 2009. It would be the smart move to make if the Packers’ goal is optimizing their shot at winning another title, but it’s going to make a 16-0 regular season far more difficult.

Thank You for Not Coaching

Now that we’ve broken down a good team, let’s celebrate those coaches who struggled to apply basic logic or forethought on Sunday. Embattled Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo appears set to return to the coordinator ranks pretty soon, and Spags didn’t do himself any favors with his timeout usage at the end of the first half. After Sam Bradford hooked up with Brandon Lloyd for a 26-yard catch that took the Rams down to the Arizona 3, they took their second timeout with 43 seconds left in the half. In predictable Rams fashion, offensive lineman Jason Brown committed a false start to push them back to the 8-yard line, and then Sam Bradford was sacked. Technically, the Rams did call timeout, but that stoppage didn’t come in until there were 12 seconds left on the clock. At that point, the Rams ran one more play (an incomplete pass) and then kicked a field goal on third down.

How on earth do you let 17 seconds fall off the clock before you take your final timeout? What are you saving it for? If you’re planning on saving it for your field goal attempt, then why use it with 12 seconds left and run a play before kicking? Are you really that worried about leaving 15 seconds left on the clock for John freaking Skelton to go 70 yards? It’s just stupid clock management, and while Bradford could have called the timeout himself, it’s on Spagnuolo to manage things properly.

Speaking of coaches who are about to get fired, we have both good and bad things to say about Chargers leader Norv Turner. On one hand, we have to congratulate Norv for improving on his mind-bogglingly dumb decision at the end of the fourth quarter last week, when he somehow used a challenge and two timeouts on a marginal decision. This week, Turner decided to make a very questionable challenge on a play deep in the fourth quarter, but it was a high-reward play (Denver would have likely punted the ball away down three points with four minutes left), and more importantly, Turner used his challenge without throwing in the extra timeout.

On the other hand, Turner pretty clearly gave up at the end of overtime. After Willis McGahee followed the two-minute warning by running for 24 yards, the Broncos had the ball on San Diego’s 17-yard line. Even though he could only win by getting the ball back, Turner didn’t use a timeout to stop the clock. The Broncos promptly ran 40 seconds off the clock before Tim Tebow ran a QB genuflect knee to place the ball in Matt Prater’s desired spot. That left 1:13 on the clock. With two timeouts, the Chargers could have created some slight hope for themselves. By taking an instant timeout, Turner could have forced the Broncos to run another play to try to run the clock down, and if anyone is aware of what can happen with an extra snap before a field goal attempt, it’s the Chargers. If the Broncos chose to kick the ball and missed, the Chargers would have gotten the ball back with more than a minute left and another timeout to work with. Instead, Turner let the clock run and used his timeout with 33 seconds left in an attempt to ice Broncos kicker Matt Prater. How clever!

Since he’s the offensive wizard in San Diego, Turner also deserves scorn for his play calling during the Chargers’ final drive. After they took over on their own 20-yard line, the Chargers advanced the ball to the Denver 35-yard line in seven plays with four passes and three runs. That placed them on the very edge of Nick Novak’s range, and once they crossed that red line on television, Turner decided to shut the offense down. The Chargers ran Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert on three consecutive plays for no net gain, and Novak promptly failed to put his 52-yarder through the uprights. That’s the exact sort of overtime behavior Brian Burke noted in his research into why Mike Smith’s fourth-and-1 decision was correct; essentially, coaches clam up in overtime when they get anywhere near a reasonable field goal. And it’s also worth noting that the Broncos passed up two fourth-and-1 opportunities with their excellent running game and promptly let the Chargers drive down the field on them … only to get lucky when the Chargers gave up and then missed their field goal.

Oh, and let’s finish by taking a shot at the king. Why did Bill Belichick challenge a down by contact ruling to get an extra eight yards on a second-quarter kickoff? The Patriots were up 21-10 and had 33 minutes of challengeable game time left. It was the difference between Philadelphia having the ball on their own 27-yard line and their own 19-yard line. As we covered a couple of weeks ago, early challenges in games should be high-reward decisions, and this was a low-risk, low-reward opportunity for the Patriots. Even though they were sure they would get the challenge, using their first challenge limited what the Patriots could do with a possible second challenge in a way that wasn’t worth eight extra yards in the middle of a game.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Previously from Bill Barnwell:

11 Things We Loved About Week 11

All Hail the NFL Freshmen
Ease Up Tampa Haters, Their Schedule Has Been Historically Tough
Vegas & the Packers’ Quest to Go 16-0
Vegas Sportsbook Review: The Wynn
Ultimate Fighting Is Ready for Its Close-Up
Vegas & the Packers’ Quest to Go 16-0
Vegas Sportsbook Review: Caesars Palace
The Hedge, the Tease, and the Life of the NFL Bettor

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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