It is rare in sports that we get a moment of genuine, poetic symmetry — so we ought to appreciate how brutally the improper application of the pass interference rule has affronted the New Orleans Saints in consecutive NFL seasons.
I mean, how often do we get to glimpse genuine perfection in this life?
Even if that perfection is perfectly awful?
Everyone with a television has by now seen how horribly hosed the Saints were in the 2018 NFC championship game, when Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman clobbered receiver Tommylee Lewis as a pass from Drew Brees fluttered to the turf. It was as obvious a pass interference offense as ever had been committed in the league’s first 99 years, and yet it went uncalled by the officials on the field. There was no recourse for the Saints, because PI was not then a reviewable matter.
It is now, of course. Which is why it was curious that when the Seahawks were driving late Sunday night toward a potential winning touchdown — which not only would enhance their own playoff position but also install the Saints as the NFC’s No. 2 seed — that an obvious pass interference from 49ers linebacker Fred Warner against Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister was allowed to stand without even a moment’s delay.
The Seahawks weren’t in position to challenge the play, because it was inside the final 2 minutes, when all replay is initiated by those charged with officiating the game. It seemed there was no review at all because the next play proceeded so quickly. But it turned out there had been. NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron told a pool reporter following the game that the play had been checked, but those empowered “didn’t see enough to stop the game.”
It was yet more evidence that adding pass interference to the list of reviewable violations was an abomination — but not nearly so great an abomination as the officiating department’s obvious conclusion it shouldn’t treat that rules change with any respect at all.
“What we see is, we see the offensive player come in and initiate contact on the defensive player — nothing that rises to the level of a foul which significantly hinders the defender,” Riveron told the pool reporter. “The defender then braces himself. And there is contact then by the defender on the receiver. Again, nothing which rises to the level of a foul based on visual evidence.”
We haven’t seen such an impressive work of fiction since author Donna Tartt published “The Goldfinch” in 2013.
The contact Riveron describes from Hollister is called, in the language of the game, running his route. It happens on nearly every pass play in every NFL game. Hollister does not attempt to shove Warner out of way: He merely encounters resistance and then turns in an attempt to clear himself to field a pass attempt.
The problem develops when Warner doesn’t release Hollister from their encounter. Warner keeps his right arm around Hollister’s left bicep and the left hand on his right shoulder, at best vaguely aware of the flight of the ball. When he sees it land in the end zone, he releases his grip and holds up his hands, before even regaining balance, his body language screaming, “Not guilty! That was never pass interference!”
The league’s disinterest in assigning a PI penalty to this conduct is entirely in keeping with its approach to replay review of this particular section of its rulebook. As of Dec. 1, there had been 77 challenges for pass interference issues, only 15 of which were reversed. That is only a 19.5 overturn rate.
To compare that to how often other categories of calls have been overturned, consider that by the end of the 2018 season, the 10 coaches with the longest tenures had their challenges approved at a rate of 43.6 percent. At one point during the season, almost as if to dissuade coaches from even thinking about using their precious challenges (and timeouts) on pass interference reviews, 20 of 21 such requests were denied.
It’s madness. Based on the recent general decline in NFL officiating, and the deployment of replay review in particular, it’s not unfair to say incompetence.
The Seahawks might have found a way to louse up the opportunity had they been awarded the ball at the 1-yard line after review of the PI. After all, they completed a pass to the 1 three plays earlier, earning a first down before incredibly taking a delay-of-game penalty after spiking the ball and stop the clock.
That doesn’t excuse the conduct or performance of the league’s officiating HQ. The Seahawks (11-5) would have been 12 inches, with all four downs available to them, away from earning the No. 3 seed in the playoffs and a home game against Philadelphia (9-7). Instead, they will travel across the continent and face the Eagles in their stadium.
The Saints would have been the No. 2 seed, with all rights and privileges accorded that position, including the right and privilege to sit on the couch next weekend while eight less accomplished teams attempt to survive what the NFL calls its Wild Card playoff round. Instead, they will be in action against the Vikings.
Riveron will be watching. Heaven help us all.