Why that Flag was Picked Up


It was a game-changing call – one that is bound to be discussed throughout the playoffs and beyond. Anthony Hitchens was covering Brandon Pettigrew on a 3rd down pass.  The back judge threw a flag for pass interference, then after some time, the officiating crew got together and decided there was no penalty.  An unusual, though not unprecedented move.

After the game, referee Pete Morelli – who announced the initial penalty – offered an explanation:

“We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn’t warrant pass interference.  He thought it was face guarding…Face guarding is not a foul.  It is a penalty in college but not in professional football.”

There are a couple things to deal with here.  First, let’s talk about the point regarding minimal contact.  Here’s an excerpt from the NFL Rule Book’s section on pass interference, the full version of which you could find here.

Actions that do not constitute pass interference include but are not limited to: 

(a) Incidental contact by a defender’s hands, arms, or body when both players are competing for the ball, or neither player is looking for the ball. If there is any question whether contact is incidental, the ruling shall be no interference.

The last point is clearly what’s most important.  Once there was a legitimate question as to whether or not Hitchens’s contact was incidental, the ruling had to be no interference.

Of course, there is a difference between “incidental contact” and “minimal contact”, the latter of which being what Morelli is talking about.  However, what many people are overlooking is the fact that Brandon Pettigrew grabbed and pulled Anthony Hitchens’s face-mask.  Thus, Hitchens’s making contact with him on the play was probably, in fact, incidental.

To take things a step further, there is a legitimate question as to whether or not the pass was actually catchable, for the rulebook also states, under “Actions that do not constitute pass interference”:

(c) Contact that would normally be considered pass interference, but the pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players.

There is no doubt that the pass was severely under-thrown.  Although Pettigrew was able to get a hand on the ball, it hit Anthony Hitchens before anything else.  This is very important for two reasons.

First, it supports the notion that the pass was uncatchable.  Very simply, the ball could not have gone through Anthony Hitchens.  Moreover, Pettigrew’s positioning on the play was the result of his own running, not any forceful contact by a defender.

Second, the point that the ball struck Hitchens first begs at a very elemental part of the rule.

There shall be no interference with a forward pass thrown from behind the line. The restriction for the passing team starts with the snap. The restriction on the defensive team starts when the ball leaves the passer’s hand. Both restrictions end when the ball is touched by anyone.

Once the throw hit Anthony Hitchens, there was no possibility for pass interference because, in essence, it was no longer a pass.

The situation could be likened to a pass deflection.  If a defensive lineman batts up a ball and the nearby running back is tackled before he could catch it, clearly that is not pass interference.

Finally, as Pete Morelli so frankly put it, “face guarding” – which is pretty self-explanatory – is not illegal.  Several analysts pointed to the fact that Hitchens never turned to the ball as evidence of defensive pass interference, but that’s really an oversimplification of the rule.  Here is another excerpt from the official NFL Rulebook:

Actions that constitute defensive pass interference include but are not limited to: 

(a) Contact by a defender who is not playing the ball and such contact restricts the receiver’s opportunity to make the catch.

It would seem reasonable to assert that if a defender is not looking at the ball, he is not playing it – however, if that were true, anytime a defender knocks away a ball with his back turned to it (which corners in press coverage often do on deep throws), it would be pass interference.  Once again, the “contact” is what’s key.

To recap, the penalty flag was picked up because there was a question as to whether or not the contact on the part of Anthony Hitchens was incidental – and a question is enough for a no-call.  However, by examining the play, we could see that the pass was almost certainly uncatchable and, more importantly, no longer a pass once it struck Anthony Hitchens, making any subsequent contact irrelevant.  Both of these points are reason enough to not call pass interference.  Lastly, it doesn’t matter that Hitchens never turned to the ball – in fact, he probably couldn’t since Pettigrew was pulling him by the face-mask.

Did you think the right call was made?  Has your mind changed after reading through the rules?  Sound off in the comments below!