Packers fuming over pick-play offensive pass interference penalties

Michael Cohen
Packers News
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Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb was out of the game in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury.

ATLANTA - Regardless of which play you remember best — the Fail Mary tug of war between wideout Golden Tate and cornerback M.D. Jennings, or the catch that wasn’t by star receiver Dez Bryant — the Green Bay Packers have been embroiled with some of the sport’s most nebulous rules.

After Sunday's 34-23 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, you can add the controversial pick play to the mix.

“Nobody gets called on that like we do,” wide receiver Davante Adams said. “But it is what it is. The rule is just — it’s a judgment call for the refs. We didn’t violate anything, so that should have been four more points on the scoreboard. At the end of the day, it’s up to them and they’ll come and talk to us in the offseason about how they messed up on certain calls and things. That’s part of the game. We can’t be the ref. If we could, then it would have been called a little bit better on that.”

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First, the rule itself. According to league bylaws, a player cannot block one yard beyond the line of scrimmage until the receiver touches the football. Otherwise, the play is considered pass interference.

The exact wording of the rule, which appears in a paragraph titled "Other Prohibited Acts By the Offense," looks like this: “Blocking downfield by an offensive player prior to a pass being thrown is offensive pass interference.”

And it comes with a caveat: “Note: It is also pass interference by the offense to block a defender beyond the line while the pass is in the air, if the block occurs in the vicinity of the player to whom the pass is thrown.”

What might sound black and white on paper becomes increasingly convoluted in the context of an actual game. As Adams stated, the pick play is a judgment call by officials in the instant the supposed pick occurs. And just like tag plays in baseball or the offside rule in soccer, enforcing the pick play requires human referees to focus their attention in two places at once: the person doing the blocking and the person doing the catching.

“The referee makes the call that he thinks he sees,” wide receiver Trevor Davis said. “We can’t really do anything about it. I mean, of course, it’s frustrating when the call doesn’t go your way, but you really can’t do anything about it.”

Which brings us back to Sunday inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where three potential pick plays produced controversial results.

The Packers trailed 17-7 late in the second quarter when wide receiver Randall Cobb broke free over the middle from an empty formation. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers delivered a throw in rhythm and Cobb, who found himself alone in acres of space, turned upfield for a 36-yard gain that crossed midfield — until a flag was thrown.

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Tight end Martellus Bennett was called for offensive pass interference after crossing in front of Cobb and colliding with cornerback Brian Poole. Two snaps later, from his own 3-yard line, Rodgers threw an interception to Desmond Trufant on a deep ball intended for wide receiver Geronimo Allison.

“It’s tough because when you’re not getting the ball, I think as long as you’re showing hands, I think they still declare you as a receiver and not a picker,” tight end Lance Kendricks said. “So I think that’s the important part. … It’s tough because you can’t block before the catch, even when they’re driving on the person who catches the ball. It’s a tough situation.”

Yet the play that enraged coach Mike McCarthy took place 30 seconds later, after the Falcons had moved within three yards of the end zone in the waning moments of the half. On second and 3, tight end Austin Hooper ran diagonally from an in-line position toward the back corner of the end zone, colliding with safety Morgan Burnett near the goal line.

As the collision occurred, running back Tevin Coleman snuck out of the backfield and caught an easy 3-yard touchdown with no defender in his path. McCarthy blew a gasket on the sideline and earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his eruption. He believed Hooper's actions constituted another pick.

“I was looking for clarification on the penalty (pass interference) that was called on Marty Bennett and didn’t get any clarification,” McCarthy said, “and the penalty resulted from that situation.”

To the Packers, what initially smelled of inequality escalated to injustice early in the third quarter, when players believed they were robbed of a touchdown on yet another pick play.

On first and goal from the 3-yard line, Rodgers connected with Cobb for a short touchdown pass after the slot receiver juked in and out from the slot. Cobb caught the ball moving toward the pylon and glided into the end zone for an easy score — until a flag was thrown.

This time the culprit was Allison, who lined up wide to the right on the same side of the formation as Cobb. Allison had feigned a slant over the middle for the sole purpose of delaying Poole, whose job was to shadow Cobb, but the officials threw a flag when Allison contacted the defender beyond the 1-yard limit.

“I don’t think it was offensive pass interference,” Allison said. “I think it was a natural rub and I was getting into my route.” 

Allison’s penalty moved the Packers back to the 13-yard line, and a sack by defensive end Adrian Clayborn shoved them beyond the red zone on the very next play. What might have been a touchdown ended with a 28-yard field goal by kicker Mason Crosby, and the Packers still trailed by 21 points.

By then the game had slipped away. But the Packers' search for consistent officiating continued. 

 “There was a million plays out there, so you can’t put it on one,” Adams said. “But it definitely affected it because we wouldn’t have had to go into desperation mode and go for (a 2-point conversion) and things like that. It kind of changes the way that you go about the rest of the game.”


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