Since we only have twelve (12!) weeks until football begins, I feel that it’s never too soon to start talking about it. Our other editors hang their hats on other sports, and that’s ok—albeit wrong. Football—specifically, college football—is what we could call my primary sport. It’s certainly my favorite, and objectively is the sport I know the most about. Additionally, as a former official, it’s also a sport of great frustration for me, because attendance almost certainly means an uneducated fan within earshot irritating the bejesus out of me. Don’t be that guy.
Because I don’t want you to be that guy as much as you don’t want to be that guy, I am writing a weekly series breaking down fairly common—but not necessarily mainstream—concepts designed to maybe help you avoid sounding ridiculous in the company of strangers. Hey, we can only hope, right?
Today, we will discuss pass interference—focusing primarily on defensive pass interference, but addressing offensive pass interference as well. Let’s get rolling.
Defensive pass interference is tricky for two reasons: one, all passes are defended and football is a contact sport, yet contact that is legal otherwise, may not be on passes; and two, it is officiated primarily as an advantage foul, meaning that the level of contact required for it to be interference is at the sole judgment of the covering official. I cannot stress this enough: NOT ALL INCOMPLETE PASSES ARE THE RESULT OF PASS INTERFERENCE! To paraphrase late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, I cannot define for you exactly what pass interference is, but I know it when I see it. Still, I’m going to try.
Let’s start with the basics. Defensive Pass Interference (DPI) occurs when a member of the defense illegally interferes with an offensive player’s right to catch a pass—this includes, but isn’t limited to: tackling the player early, pushing him off his route downfield, or holding his jersey. The primary consideration here pertains to the rights of the involved players, both offense and defense–yes, the defensive player has rights as well. The offensive player may not violate those on a pass either, otherwise it is Offensive Pass Interference (OPI). So, what has to occur for it to be interference? That depends on the league. We’ll start with college and highlight the differences between it and the NFL at the time of this writing.
The first requirement is a pass. I know this may sound rudimentary, but at no time can pass interference occur during a run play. This is why receivers can block, and why defenders can push them out of the way. These behaviors cannot happen on a pass play for any eligible receiver—which essentially means you can’t have one receiver come block your defender so you can make an easier catch, and defenders cannot throw receivers to the ground on a pass play.
Second, the pass must be “catchable.” I could write a dissertation on the vagaries of “catchable” over the years. Simply put, the official assumes the receiver possesses the maximums of human capacity and applies judgment based on this—they err on the receiver’s side of things. If the guy you interfered with had the slimmest chance to catch the pass in the field of play, you’re probably getting flagged, plain and simple.
Third, and here’s where it gets murky, all eligible downfield receivers for the offense AND all members of the defense are considered “eligible receivers” by Rule. This means that the offensive players do NOT get the right of first refusal to a ball in the air. If the defender is positioned better, he has every right to the ball the offensive player does. This wrinkle allows officials the latitude to judge contact that would otherwise be interference as a bona fide attempt to catch a pass. We see things like this when a defender makes a break on a thrown ball with the intent of intercepting it. Defenders may create contact with a receiver on breaks like this, but it isn’t judged to be interference because he’s going after the ball. Contact is officiated based on advantage, which means that mutual contact like handfighting or getting legs tangled creates no advantage or disadvantage for either player and is not flagged. If there is mutual contact, only disproportional contact will be flagged. Additionally, once the ball is touched or tipped by anyone beyond scrimmage, DPI cannot happen by Rule. Further, plays for the football or at the football—like attempting to bat the ball away—tend to go uncalled. Thus, the team that is hurt more by the lack of a flag becomes indignant that the official blew the call. To be fair, sometimes, officials do blow the call. However, the officiating mechanics provision one downfield official per eligible receiver, meaning that each official watching a receiver only has that matchup to worry about, so missed calls don’t happen near as often as drunk idiots at game seems to think they do.
When we consider collegiate DPI/OPI, we often get confused over what constitutes interference and what the defender can and cannot get away with. The defender cannot ever go through a receiver to get to the ball; it’s about position. Still, college football allows for defenders to do things to receivers that already have position. They can faceguard—yes, they can. I hear this every game I go to without fail, “He’s faceguarding ref, that’s a flag!” Add in some choice adjectives, a colorful metaphor or two, and maybe substitute your favorite pejorative for ‘ref’ and you’ve got the blueprint to every single ignorant complaint about faceguarding in college football. Faceguarding is a desperate act of last resort by a defender who has been not only beat, but beat bad. It’s awful, and probably should be illegal in college, but it’s not. At time of writing, defenders can run toward a receiver and do the Team America secret signal in his face to break up the pass as long as they don’t make otherwise illegal contact and not draw a flag. Faceguarding IS illegal in the NFL, a bona fide play on the ball must be made. If you understand nothing else about this article, understand that distinction.
The last thing I’ll cover before moving on to enforcement is jamming. Jamming is the act by the defense of making legal contact with a receiver on a loose ball play prior to him becoming protected by Rule. In the NFL, the defensive backs can make this kind of contact within the first 5 yards. In college, they can make this contact so long as the receiver is square in front and the ball is not in the air—any contact that continues beyond can be construed at minimum as illegal contact, but also could be DPI depending on how the play develops.
We move on to the joys of enforcement. If you’re not familiar with the official’s jargon, I apologize. Enforcement is the term for how penalties and yardage are administered after a foul. Let’s start with the NFL enforcement of DPI, as it is the easiest to understand. If DPI occurs in the NFL, it is a spot foul and automatic first down. If it occurs in the end zone, the ball is moved out to the 1 yard line and a first down is awarded. In college, it’s somewhat different. DPI in college also carries an automatic first down for the offense, but is only a spot foul up to a maximum of a 15 yard penalty. This means that the succeeding spot will either be the yard line where the foul occurred or 15 yards forward, whichever is lesser. Since the collegiate rule creates an incentive for deliberate pass interference to prevent a large gain, the crew of officials can choose to award an additional 15 yards of penalty yardage if the actions of the defender are intentional. I have never in my life seen this happen, nor do I ever expect to; this isn’t NFL Blitz. The offensive enforcement is easy, if the call is OPI, it’s a 10 yard penalty and the down is replayed—this is consistent in college and pro football.
So, to recap; defenders playing the ball get more latitude, the call is judgment based with contact officiated on an advantage standard, faceguarding in college is allowed, and enforcement varies based on the location of the foul. Pass interference is a huge and game changing call—both when it’s called and when it isn’t. The key lies in understanding the call, and the officiating practices employed around it.
Here’s the part where I would reinforce that this information is meant to benefit you and your enjoyment of football games. But, that would be a lie. This is for me and meant to benefit MY enjoyment of football games through education. Granted it also gives you insight into how to annoy me, but no one would use it for that, right?
Ain’t learnin’ grand?
Look for part two of the series next week!