The pass interference concept has always been a trick-or treat setup, but it’s Halloween every day out there as cheap PI calls are now a regular part of the game. Ball in the air? Look for a flag. We expect them. We have officially become conditioned.
Pass defense in the NFL has been reduced to a couple of children fussing and spatting in the back seat — “He touched me!”
“No I didn’t!”
“Yes he did! He was in my territory!”
On Monday night, we watched the Texans in New England trying to sort things out in the AFC. Houston was already in a 14-0 jam, and they were trying to get their defense and their pass rush straightened out, and on 3rd-and-10 Tom Brady sends a longie to Wes Welker down the left sideline. Too long. The ball bounces about eight yards ahead of Welker, ahead of everybody, and the Texans should be out of the series.
But the official, Lord, he didn’t dare miss that little bit of incidental contact at the end. Yep, Texans safety Danieal Manning had put a late bump on Welker, and according to rulebook minutia, that’s a no-no. The hanky sails in, and it’s a 26-yard freebie for the Pats. Three plays later they’re in the endzone and 21-0 means Houston is a dead team.
It was a garbage call. And this year I’ve seen a million garbage calls just like it. A whole stinking landfill’s worth.
The NFL has allowed the pass interference call get out of control … the owners, the Competition Committee, the commissioner, all of them are responsible. It has always been a judgment issue and it has never gone without controversy, but pass interference has reached the point where everyone is expecting a flag anytime a ball is hurled downfield. It has become commonplace, and the cheapness of it is ruining football.
For receivers it’s now a standard reflex. They’re now fully conditioned to beg for the hankie, the Scooby Snack freebie. They work on it in practice, during their Interference Drama drills.
Just watch the receiver’s automatic ritual as he sits there on the grass, after a pass play has been busted up. The dance has been perfected … arms extended, palms to the sky, pleading gestures and mock disbelief, frantically whipping around to see if the marker has been tossed. Often it has. We now see it over and over and over.
This is an unwanted dividend from the league’s dream to crank up offensive football, to get more balls in the air and scoring up and get these games into the 30s and 40s. So we can hear Chris Berman bloat out over and over again on his evening ESPN postgame, “Another wild and wacky Sunday of NFL football.”
I’d rather see a missed PI call than the cheapo wrong one. I’d rather see a defender get away with some hand jive and make a stop than see another fly-boy sprinter get awarded 25 or 30 or 60 yards for somebody blowing in his ear. I’d like to see the defenses win a few. I’m tired of the slanted field.
I caught one of the Football Life episodes recently on NFL Network, and a scene in it helps explain how we have submerged into this yellow-happy parade of an era.
A pair of Super Bowl royals were out on a fishing boat and they were gabbing about the current state of affairs, and Jimmy Johnson said to Bill Belichick, “It used to be a quarterback-driven league. Now that’s the only thing.
“I mean, some of the rule changes helped them, too. The receivers aren’t intimidated to go across the field. They know they’re not going to get the big hit.”
Belichick agreed and added, “The defenders are intimidated. They’re afraid to hit ‘em.”
Johnson: “They don’t want to get fined.”
That’s what really has elevated this pass interference intrusion to emergency status — the pressure on the officials to get flag happy. Until recent years, their main charge was to keep the game breezy and wide open and to make sure receivers didn’t get fingerprints or smudges on their jerseys.
Now, the mission is much more serious. They’re being asked to do something unnatural — to slap handcuffs on an inherently savage sport and still keep it watchable. They’re told to clean up the unnecessary violence and penalize the hell out of the offenders to tame it. In other words, flag everything.
That’s a helluva big plate for these officials. So it’s better for them to flip the hanky and be wrong than to refrain and get criticized to hell by the league gestapo.
The NFL needs to get this thing calmed down. They need to either start going to the replay to verify these penalties or allow the officials to let the players bang out there, to allow some hand-to-hand combat when the ball’s in the air and only get involved if the contact is egregious and non-tickytack.
Because with all the flags flying these days, it’s not football anymore. It’s a cheap parade.
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.