MINNEAPOLIS, MN – When the yellow flag flew for defensive pass interference on Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes in a recent game, coach Mike Zimmer immediately contested the call.
His newfound right to seek a replay, however, went unexercised. The email Zimmer received earlier in the day from the NFL, containing current statistics on the experimental penalty reviews, had already dashed that hope.
"They haven't overturned any, so I said, 'Screw it,'" Zimmer said after Minnesota beat Washington on Oct. 24.
None of the 11 reviews of defensive pass interference calls around the league over the first nine weeks of the season resulted in a reversal, with officials ordered to adhere to a standard of "clear and obvious visual evidence" for any overturns. There were 63 pass interference replay reviews overall, including 26 for offense and 37 for defense and 22 for calls and 41 for non-calls. Only nine resulted in a reversal.
"We are challenging things that we think are plays that are going to be overturned, and we are going to trust the process," Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. "But so far, I've been given the Heisman. I've been stiff-armed. I'm 0 for 27, I think."
Exaggeration aside, Gruden has twice been denied attempts to have non-calls turned into defensive pass interference and twice trying to erase an offensive pass interference penalty. Not even the guidance of former NFL referee Gerry Austin, who worked on three Super Bowl crews and was hired by the Raiders as an officiating adviser, has been able to help Gruden get results from his red flag.
"I never get any popularity points when I say this, especially with the league, but it's an overreaction to one play," said former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, who's now a rules analyst for Fox Sports.
That play, of course, was the collision Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman made with New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis on an incomplete pass late in the NFC championship game that went uncalled and helped send the Rams to the Super Bowl.
Even Robey-Coleman acknowledged afterward he got away with a foul, and the league's current head of officiating, Al Riveron, told Saints coach Sean Payton afterward the call should have been made. Payton's presence on the NFL competition committee influenced the offseason decision, by a landslide vote from the owners, to put pass interference up for replay review for one year, whether called or not called on the field.
There's long been a hesitance to legislate penalties like this, for fear of making games take longer. The problem so far in the view of coaches, players, analysts and fans has not been a slowdown, though, but an apparently higher standard for pass interference in the review room in New York than on fields around the league.
"I was guilty, too, in my days. You had some play that happened that just seemed totally unfair, and you changed the rule and then the unintended consequences just came flying down the highway," Pereira said. "I think we're seeing that here."
Confusion, as with some of the other recent high-profile officiating issues like the process of a catch and roughing the passer, has been the prevailing theme. Even NBC analyst Tony Dungy, the famously mild-mannered former coach, complained about the situation on Twitter this week while referencing the Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants game on Monday night. He pleaded with the NFL to change the rule.
"You're causing teams to lose timeouts, making your officiating department look inept, and making us fans feel stupid," Dungy said.
Dungy's tweet included a freezeframe of Cowboys cornerback Chudobie Awuzie smothering Giants tight end Evan Engram before the ball arrived during an incompletion near the goal line with the Giants trailing by one score in the fourth quarter. Giants coach Pat Shurmur, who has been largely undeterred in his challenge attempts, threw the red flag for defensive pass interference. He was denied.
Zimmer watched an automatic replay review wipe out a Vikings touchdown pass at Green Bay on Sept. 15 when running back Dalvin Cook was flagged for offensive pass interference, ruled to have been blocking a defender more than a yard down the field before the ball arrived. They were forced to settle for a field goal in that 21-16 defeat.
Last week at Kansas City, Zimmer challenged a non-call during a completion by the Chiefs, when wide receiver Sammy Watkins appeared to be guilty of that same type of offensive pass interference against Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks. The review upheld the non-call.
"We have seen plays that are clearly pass interference, that if they were called on the field, they would be evaluated correctly, but they're not called on the field, and they're not being added in replay, and I think that's where the frustration lies," said Dean Blandino, who like Pereira left his perch as the league's officiating boss to be a rules analyst for Fox Sports.
The NFL declined to make Riveron available for an interview.
"We did the things that we needed to do to preserve the integrity of the game, to safeguard the game in the appropriate ways," said Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who's on the competition committee with Payton.
The red flag has been dropped for pass interference 53 times, giving coaches a 9.4% success rate. That's a whole lot of lost timeouts.
Here's the breakdown, as provided by the NFL:
— Offensive pass interference called on the field: eight coaches challenges with no reversals, and three official-initiated reviews with two reversals.
— Offensive pass interference not called on the field: 12 coaches challenges with one reversal, and three official-initiated reviews with two reversals.
— Defensive pass interference called on the field: 10 coaches challenges with no reversals, and one official-initiated review with no reversals.
— Defensive pass interference not called on the field: 23 coaches challenges with four reversals, and three official-initiated reviews with no reversals.
The future of the rule, only enacted for 2019, is unclear. Unlike the slow-motion replays in high definition on screens around the country, of course, that put the officials on the field under constant scrutiny.
"It's so tough for them, too. There's so many things going on in each single play," Chicago Bears tight end Trey Burton said. "You have to give them a lot of credit for what they're able to do."