Each week throughout the NFL season, Mike Pereira, the league’s former vice president of officiating, will answer readers’ questions about officiating and league rules.
To put your questions up to Pereira’s review, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org and include your name and location in the submission.
Q: In my opinion, pass interference could be called on almost every pass play. You see wide receivers and defensive backs grabbing and hand-fighting all the time, and penalties do not seem consistent from play to play. What are the key indicators referees look for when calling a pass interference penalty?
– Randy Gregg, Rocklin
A: I don’t agree that you could call it on almost every play. There is a lot of contact that’s considered legal.
You mentioned hand-fighting. That goes on all the time between both the receiver and the defender. The key as to when the contact becomes illegal is when the contact “significantly hinders a player’s opportunity to catch the ball.” Those are the exact words in the rule book. “Significantly” is a strong word.
In 1998, my first year as a supervisor of officials, I did a study of all the pass-interference calls made in both the ’96 and ’97 seasons. I put them into categories that best described the action. I came up with six:
1. Contact by a player who is not playing the ball
2. Playing through the back of an opponent
3. Grabbing an opponent’s arm
4. Extending an arm across the body of an opponent (arm bar)
5. Cutting off the path of an opponent without playing the ball
6. Hooking an opponent and turning him before the pass arrives
This list is still used today to teach and train officials. This list is also used when communicating with coaches in describing what was or was not called and why.
Keep in mind, any of these six actions must significantly hinder a player’s opportunity to make the catch. If not, it’s not a foul.
In my opinion, pass interference is the toughest call to make, which leads it to being the second-most inconsistently called foul in the NFL. The first? Offensive holding.
Q: In Sunday’s Houston/Seattle game, the Texans were punting with 4:36 left in the second quarter. Seattle’s Michael Wihoite was penalized for holding. The official was reaching for his flag before the ball was punted. Shouldn’t that have been an automatic first down rather than 10 yards back from Seattle’s return? The explanation was holding during the kick.
– Jim Petersen, Fair Oaks
A: First of all, I don’t see it as a foul, period. If it is, I don’t think it’s No. 57. Back when I was grading games, when I worked for the NFL, I would’ve given the umpire a downgrade for calling it.
That being said, the enforcement is correct. The only hold by the receiving team that would result in the penalty being enforced from the line of scrimmage with an automatic first down is a “pull and shoot.” A “pull and shoot” is when a defensive player grabs an offensive player and pulls him to the side, allowing another defensive player to shoot the created gap.
Holding a kicking team member, thus keeping him from getting downfield, is considered a foul during the kick, no matter when the foul occurs, and is enforced from the end of the kick as long as the receivers still have possession of the ball at the end of the down.
Q: Can a coach challenge the expiration of the play clock? Every weekend I see examples of the play clock expiring before the ball is snapped but never a challenge. Frequently, the announcers comment that the team probably got away with one. It would seem like an important thing to challenge and easy to review.
– Kris Frank, Carmichael
A: This question is posed to me frequently, Kris. It would seem easy to review this, but there’s a catch. It’s not a foul precisely at the time the play clock hits zero.
Why? The back judge is responsible for the play clock. When the clock is close to expiring, he is told to watch it closely, and as soon as it hits zero, not to throw the flag, but to look to the ball to see if the ball has been snapped. If it has been, then don’t call a foul.
Play clocks are not in the same area in every stadium. Some are low at field level. Others are high near the scoreboard. The back judge can’t look at two places at once. Therefore, there is a lag time from when he sees the clock hit zero, and then gets his eyes to the ball to see if it has been snapped.
It’s that human lag time that keeps rules makers from making this a reviewable play. In essence, delay shouldn’t be called even if the ball is snapped a half-second after the clock expires.
Mike Pereira is a rules analyst for Fox Sports who lives in Sacramento.