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Breaking down the call: Explaining the Justin Coleman pass interference

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Did they get it right? Let’s take a closer look.

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions fans were all over the officiating on Sunday afternoon, as expected following Monday’s refereeing breakdown against the Green Bay Packers.

It appeared the officials added fuel to the fire in the second quarter between the Lions and Minnesota Vikings when a Tracy Walker red zone interception was negated by a pass interference call on Justin Coleman. At first glace, it appeared the receiver, Olabisi, Johnson, was out of bounds, making him an ineligible receiver and therefore pass interference would be impossible.

The officials reviewed the play, but did not end up overturning the call. On the very next play, the Vikings tied it up at 14-14 with a touchdown pass to Johnson.

But was it the right call? Let’s break it down, because there are a lot of facets to the play.

Who reviews it?

Lions head coach Matt Patricia held his challenge flag in his hand for some time before the officials finally stopped play and chatted with him. After a long discussion, the officials finally said they are reviewing the play.

Even though the interception was nullified by the penalty, it was still a play that involved a turnover, therefore the officials must initiate the replay and they did, as Senior Vice President of officiating Al Riveron confirmed with the media after the game.

“Even though the interception was going to be negated by the pass interference, the new rule states that we have to verify the interception,” Riverson said.

And when you review one aspect of the play, all aspects of the play become reviewable—including pass interference.

Ineligible receiver?

If Johnson had stepped out of bounds on his own, he becomes an ineligible receiver and can therefore be contacted by the defender. The key here is what contact they are calling pass interference? Was it before Johnson stepped out of bounds or after?

After the game, Riverson said the contact that was called pass interference came before Johnson went out of bounds

“He was pushed out of bounds. The pass interference put him out of bounds,” Riveron said.

Is that true? Well, it’s close:

Because Johnson was forced out of bounds, according to the officials’ recollection of the play, he could return to the field of play and re-establish himself as an eligible receiver with two steps in bounds.

Illegal touch?

If Johnson went out of bounds, he is not legally allowed to be the first one to touch the ball. Otherwise there is an illegal touching penalty and there would be offsetting penalties.

Well, that’s not completely true.

If you look very closely at the wording of the rule, Johnson can re-establish himself as a receiver, because the contact that forced him out was considered “illegal.”

ARTICLE 8. ILLEGAL TOUCHING OF A FORWARD PASS. It is a foul for illegal touching if a forward pass (legal or illegal) thrown from behind the line of scrimmage:

(a) is first touched intentionally or is caught by an originally ineligible offensive player; or

(b) first touches or is caught by an eligible receiver who has gone out of bounds, either by his own volition or by being legally forced out of bounds and has re-established himself inbounds.

In this case, even if Johnson was deemed the first to touch the ball—which is tough to tell upon review—he has re-established himself in bounds after illegal contact, therefore making him eligible to touch the ball first, as Riveron confirmed postgame.

Pass interference or illegal contact?

The question also arose whether this call should have been illegal contact or pass interference. The deciding factor is clear: was the ball out of Kirk Cousins’ hand yet? If the contact came before the ball was thrown, it was illegal contact. If it was after the ball was in the air, it’s pass interference.

What’s interesting about this dilemma is if the officials ruled the ball had not been thrown yet, that would be enough to theoretically overturn the call of pass interference on the field, because pass interference can only happen after the ball was thrown.

And because illegal contact is not reviewable, there would be no penalty on the play and the interception would have stood, even though officials know there should’ve been an illegal contact penalty.

So was the ball out of Cousins’ hand?

It does appear the ball is out, and Coleman is in the process of—as the refs saw it—shoving Johnson out of bounds.

Overall

So was it the right call? Yeah, it probably was. There certainly was no way the officials were going to overturn the moderate contact Coleman had with Johnson. As for the ineligible receiver and/or ball out of Cousins’ hand stipulations, it appears the officials did get it right.

It’s an interesting set of rules that came up, but this doesn’t appear to be another instance in which the Lions got screwed.