John McGrath

John McGrath: End the madness in football that is the often crippling pass interference call

There might not be a more perplexing quandary for a football referee than defining defensive pass interference.

Unless it’s defining offensive pass interference.

It happens at least once a game: A ball goes up, a flag does down, and the officials confer to determine whether the defender impeded the receiver, or whether the receiver impeded the defender.

A simple-minded solution comes to mind, and because my mind is nothing if not simple I’ve got one.

Eliminate pass interference. A ball goes up, no flag goes down. Pushing is answered by shoving, and the guy with more will and moxie wins the play.

Football is a contact sport — at least it is for now, until ever-evolving rule books outlaw blocking and tackling — and a contact sport predicated on violent collisions should tolerate some jousting for a ball in the air.

A fourth-quarter penalty that proved crippling to the Washington Huskies last Saturday night underscored the impossible task of interpreting pass interference. Quarterback Jake Browning hooked up with tight end Joshua Perkins for a 21-yard reception, but a flag was dropped — Perkins had made some inconsequential contact the officials deemed consequential — and instead of a first down at the Utah 45-yard line, the Huskies were sent back to their 19.

The Pac-12 Conference is not known for its consistently astute officiating crews, but those guys, like all officiating crews, have a lot on their plate. Too much.

I am reminded of the NBA, which once prohibited zone defenses. But precisely what constituted a zone had gotten vague, and in 1981 rules banning illegal defenses were clarified six ways. Among them: “A player without the ball may not double-teamed from the weak side,” and “an offensive player above the foul line and inside the circle must be played by the defense inside the dotted line.”

Teams that violated these comically confusing rules were given a warning while the shot clock was reset to 24 seconds, and subsequent violations were regarded as technical fouls.

Remember how that worked out? Possessions often were stopped by a whistle blown because of a defensive maneuver few saw, in violation of a rule few understood.

By 2001, when the absurdity of regulating illegal defenses had become obvious, the NBA scrapped its arcane rules. Sighs of relief were universal, but nobody was happier than officials liberated to call authentic fouls.

Pass interference is the football version of illegal zone defense in basketball: There’s no consensus. When a defensive back appears to smother a receiver, it’s sometimes overlooked on the premise the ball is fair game for both. When ticky-tack contact is made, it’s sometimes flagged because, well, because.

Enough, already. Allow the defensive back to do his job, which is to impede the receiver by any means necessary. But also allow the receiver to retaliate, or instigate, or whatever else he can to do his job.

Not that I’m suggesting anything goes. A defensive player shouldn’t be able to plow into a receiver whose eyes are on the ball, for instance. That’s dangerous, and worthy of an unnecessary roughness penalty.

But incidental contact isn’t dangerous, nor is a push answered by a shove. We’re talking about football. Allow the players to play, and allow the officials to enforce rules that are comprehensible.

Best thing about the elimination of pass interference?

The receiver denied a catch no longer holds up his arms in mock distress, pleading for the official to drop a flag. Sorry, buddy, there are no flags on this play. If you can’t separate yourself from the defender, you’ve got to fight for your right to the ball.

Strongest, toughest, most resourceful athlete wins in this confrontation, and isn’t that the essence of football?

Now, about holding penalties ...