GREEN BAY - Marquez Valdes-Scantling felt the cornerback’s arms wrap around his before the football arrived, but he wasn’t sure. Not in the immediate aftermath of Thursday night’s deciding play.
Slow it down frame by frame, and it sure looked like Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Craig James committed pass interference, preventing Valdes-Scantling from catching what became a game-ending interception.
In real time, it was the type of bang-bang play that gives NFL officials cold sweats.
There’s a new rule to settle this sort of predicament in the NFL. After the pass-interference debacle in last season's NFC Championship game between the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints, such plays are now reviewable.
So what Valdes-Scantling couldn’t understand wasn’t so much how a pass interference went uncalled, but how the call wasn’t reversed upon review.
“It was just a bang-bang play,” he said. “Just one of those things where it’s a contested 50-50 ball – you might get it, you might not. I definitely think there was some early contact there that kept me from putting my full ability into catching it, but it is what it is.”
After Thursday night’s 34-27 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Packers coach Matt LaFleur bemoaned that he no longer knows what constitutes a pass-interference penalty. He’s certainly not alone.
The NFL, often reactionary by nature, never hesitates to fix something that’s not broken. A year ago, it was a reemphasis on roughing-the-passer penalties after Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone at Minnesota in 2017. This year, it’s the introduction of turning pass interference into a reviewable play, combined with a reemphasis on offensive pass interference, that has coaches and receivers scratching their heads.
The problem with such subjective calls is they’re difficult to treat with any consistency. Throw a review into such a bang-bang play, and you’re only further splitting hairs. Not that anyone wants blatant passing interference penalties missed. But Pandora’s box has been opened now, and perhaps an unintended byproduct is a changed game.
The final, meaningful play of Thursday night’s game was only one of three in which the pass-interference rules change caused confusion. In the first half, the Eagles had a touchdown erased because of offensive interference called on tight end Zach Ertz. The ruling was reversed upon further review, allowing quarterback Carson Wentz’ 6-yard touchdown pass to receiver Alshon Jeffery to stand.
In the third quarter, Valdes-Scantling tried to high-point a pass from Rodgers over Eagles cornerback Avonte Maddox’ head. Maddox never turned his head to look for the football. He clearly contacted Valdes-Scantling before Rodgers’ pass arrived. On the FOX broadcast, former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said he thought it was a clear defensive pass interference. LaFleur slammed his red challenge flag on the field, showing some disgust.
After review, the call on the field stood.
“It looked clear and obvious to me,” LaFleur said after the game, “but I’m not the one making the decision.”
That all three questionable calls went against the Packers probably did not enhance their acceptance of the pass-interference changes. What good is making a penalty reviewable if the call is still wrong after review? More significant, though, is how the renewed emphasis on offensive pass interference has changed the game.
Like roughing the passer last year, the offensive pass interference rule is not new. Its enforcement has been quite different. The Packers have already been called for two this year, matching their total in all of 2018. They’ve also benefited. In Week 2, the Minnesota Vikings had a touchdown removed because of offensive pass interference.
Alvis Whitted, the Packers' receivers coach who played nine NFL seasons, said the reemphasis on offensive pass interference has changed how to play the position. Now, when receivers make a break, they’re mindful of “winning with your feet” instead of using hands to create separation.
Even if there’s minimal to no contact with a defensive back, receivers know the play can be reviewed. In slow motion, a straight arm can look a lot like a shove.
“I think really for us,” Whitted said, “it’s more or less when we’re in space with the defender, we call it ‘bent-arm pressure,’ and really not just extending (your arm) to where it makes it obvious. But just learning how to really, truly play through contact and not show any obvious impeding of progress on our part, from the defender’s standpoint. Not a real, whole difference in teaching this. You’ve got to just be able to be strong at the top of our routes and not extend, but really just play through contact, getting vertical once we release and not worrying about, ‘Hey, this guy is doing this,’ but just playing fast. Just us being the aggressor.”
Players will adjust. They always do. The greater frustration will be reserved for the replay reviews.
Not getting a call right on the field is one thing. When it’s in slow motion, there are no excuses.
“That’s why I get so angry in those situations,” said LaFleur, who added he’ll submit the Valdes-Scantling non-call to the league offices for review this week. “… To be honest with you, I knew it was PI. I wasn’t confident that it was going to get overturned, because I don’t know. I mean, the league sends out video each week, and it looks (like) some of the other ones that have gotten overturned. But, I don’t know.”