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It’s time to get rid of the spot foul on defensive pass interference

There should never be a 66-yard penalty. Never.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

As the Detroit Lions trailed by 28 points, Marvin Jones twisted his body to catch a back shoulder throw, gathered his balance enough to get two feet inbounds, had the presence of mind to immediately stick an arm out to push the defender away then outran every defender for the next 55 yards.

Earlier in the quarter, Aaron Rodgers threw a deep incomplete pass to a receiver who was being touched a little bit.

These two plays ended up being essentially worth the exact same to each team because of the most outdated, unfair, illogical stipulation in the rulebook. Yes, it’s even worse than the obscure kickoff rule that the Packers exploited on Sunday.

Defensive pass interference should absolutely not be a spot foul. I’ve argued this before and I’ll almost certainly argue it again. As Mike Pereira has said in the past, pass interference is the most difficult call for a referee to make. It is typically up to a single referee to spot the foul and they have to do so in the flash of a moment. No benefit of instant replay, no reverse angles.

Take the pass interference call on Nevin Lawson that resulted in a 66-yard penalty, the longest penalty in the NFL since at least 2001 (Elias says it’s the longest penalty in 30 years). Here’s a look (via SB Nation):

The only ref in position to make this call is the back judge, who is in a full sprint just to keep up with the play. That’s not exactly an ideal place to make a call. When I’m in full sprint, I have trouble with just about every single one of my five senses. It’s not surprising for the judge to see some hand tussling and when a receiver falls down, he assumes he saw clear pass interference.

Whether it was the right or wrong call is hard to say, and it’s really hard to fault the referee when he’s put in such a vulnerable situation. However, as a league, you cannot allow a penalty that is the result of an extremely subjective call be as impactful as a 73-yard touchdown. Lawson’s penalty put the Packers on the 2-yard line and they scored on the next play.

The solution to this obvious problem couldn’t be more clear. A move to a 15-yard pass interference penalty—the system they have in the NCAA—solves this problem completely. The league discussed doing this back in 2015, but the motion never even became an official proposal at owners meetings.

Every other penalty in the game is capped off at 15 yards, so why not pass interference? Sure, this may result in players purposely interfering on deep throws, but so what? 15 yards is a significant penalty and pretty much every penalty committed is done to prevent a bigger play. Offensive linemen hold to prevent a sack and potential fumble. Players haul down ball carriers by the facemask or horsecollar to make sure they don’t break the tackle. If a cornerback purposely trips up a receiver on the fly, how is it any different?

Every single week, holding and pass interference penalties are the most criticized calls from the officiating crews. Why not limit the damage of the latter by making their subjective calls just a little less influential?

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