The Sports Revolution: And-One Penalties

PI's just like a bench press for Ed.Let me set the scene for you: A quarterback launches a long pass down the sideline toward an emergingly open receiver. The defensive back, sensing what is about to occur, prevents a completion through less than legal means. And yet, even while a flag is being thrown, the receiver makes a tremendous catch anyway. The penalty is declined.

Let me reset the scene for you: After the flag is thrown and the catch is made, our referee announces the penalty while his assistants march off additional yardage. How much exactly? Why, the amount gained on the play, to be precise.

That’s right: Football needs its and-one. A catch made in spite of pass interference shouldn’t render the interference irrelevant. The same penalty should be meted out regardless of the completion of the pass, and thus a 20-yard pass despite PI should become a 40-yard gain.

Pierre has argued this point before, in regards to that officiating shambles of an indoor winter sport. While watching my beloved Ligue canadienne de football this autumn, it has struck me that North American football does an even more piteous job acknowledging degree of difficulty than its indoor companion. Penalties that do not alter the final result of a play are simply declined—overlooked, ignored, erased from the annals of the postgame almanacs.

But allow me to make the same argument in a new context: Why should we neglect illegality simply because it was ineffective? Attempted murder is a crime regardless of whether it ends successfully or not. Ronald Reagan did not emerge from George Washington University Hospital, say “All’s well that ends well” and let John Hinckley, Jr. off scot-free (although I believe this is what Pope John Paul II did). The penalty was not declined.

Now obviously, it is perhaps histrionic to compare pass interference to the attempted assassination of a president; I invoke no slopes, slippery or not. My point is merely that a defender who commits a penalty should be punished for it, whether he prevents a play’s success or not. And it seems logical—self-evident even—that the penalty should be the same that it would have been had he succeeded.* And thus, any pass completed in spite of pass interference would be worth double its original yardage.

*One believes this logic should apply to murderous intent, as well.

I do not wish to restrict my point just to football’s most punitive penalty, though. On an offsides penalty, five yards should be added on from the end of the play, rather than from the original line of scrimmage, with the down replayed. A two-yard run in spite of offsides should result in a 1st-and-3. The same can be said for myriad minor defensive penalties: illegal substitution, illegal hands to the face, illegal contact, etc. (Most of these, it should be noted, currently result in automatic first downs. This would no longer be the case under my proposal. An illegal contact penalty occurring on an out pattern six yards from the line of scrimmage on 3rd-and-30 should not result in a first down.)

The same philosophy need be extended to the offense, as well. If a defensive lineman is held but another defense lineman sacks the quarterback anyway, we shan’t overlook the hold. This is a massive failure of the offensive line—did you catch the pun?–and it should be reflected as such: Add 10 more yards to the loss on the play, and do not for goodness’ sake allow for the repetition of the down. A seven-yard sack could then translate to 2nd-and-27.

(The obvious rejoinder to this is, Well, what do we do when a play is successful because of a penalty? How should holding be penalized when it leads to a 60-yard run? Here, there are two options I shall present. We can keep the status quo: a 10-yard, repeat-the-down penalty. Or we could grow more radical, where a team can choose between a 10-yard, repeat-the-down penalty or a 10-yards-from-the-end-of-the-run, loss-of-down penalty. A five-yard run with a holding penalty could then result in 1st-and-20 or 2nd-and-15.)

(This is admittedly not ideal. One thing that Pierre dislikes in the game is when penalties become the inspiration for complex probabilistic calculations along these lines. No sport, however, is ideal, and no sport is ever completely immune to complex probabilistic calculations.)

The benefits of my proposal are manifold. First, we reward the offense for gaining yardage in spite of a penalty by the defense. It is by definition tougher to move the ball when the defense commits a penalty than when it doesn’t, and the rules should reflect that degree of difficulty. Catches in spite of pass interference are harder than clean ones, and they should be worth more yardage.

Second, increasing the magnitude of punishments decreases the frequency of the crime. An offensive lineman would be less apt to hold an incoming pass rusher if he knew the team would lose 10 yards regardless of what happened from that point on. This, one thinks, is an admirable goal.

I see what the biggest complaint is already. Officials are already too big a part of the sport, you are screaming, and your proposal amplifies that influence to a frightening degree. Pass interference is already too punitive in regards to its subjectivity; even Mike Pereira says so! So how can we in good conscience rely on fallible officials to mete out even harsher penalties?

My response is this: Mike Pereira is an upstanding gentleman who is usually right but in this singular instance is wrong. One of the unforeseen—by you, obvs; I see it clearly—byproducts of my proposal is that pass interference would become a much clearer crime.*

*You may note that I have tried diligently throughout this piece to avoid referring to penalties as “offenses” in the interest of avoiding confusion.

Pass interference is a beautiful little nigh-Orwellian phrase, turning illegal that which would seem to present itself as the goal of any good defensive back. It is a wide-ranging crime, consisting of a spectrum that runs from coquettish games of footsy or patty-cake to out-and-out battery. Think of what implementing my system would do to the mindset of both the defensive back and the official watching the play downfield.

Currently, a defender believes he can attempt to interfere with the pass minimally, prevent its completion, and perhaps not get caught. If he is called for the penalty or the ball is caught, well, he did his best; it is upsetting but not debilitating. Under my system, this defender realizes that minor meddling can backfire tremendously; the ball—and he—might be caught at the same time, resulting in double the damage. He has two choices: Avoid interference altogether, or make damn sure the receiver doesn’t catch the ball. Pass interference’s tricky gray area necessarily shrinks.

The official watching the play will also be reminded to focus on what Pereira so rightfully—and somewhat righteously—points out is the key phrase in the PI rule: “significantly hinders.” Those games of footsy and patty-cake? They appear above board when the punishment is harsher. Remember, increasing the magnitude of the punishment decreases the frequency of the crime; the perspective works both ways.*

*For the slower among you: Knowing the potential magnitude of a pass interference call, an official would be less likely to call borderline cases, in the same way that a defender would be more likely to ensure that the pass is not caught if he were to interfere.

Our sports should aspire to cleanliness and an overt, nearly pedagogical legality. Players should not, as an offensive coordinator recently put it, be able to “get away with murder” when it comes to penalties. It is Pierre’s belief—his strident, all-encompassing conviction—that they should not get away with attempted murder, either.

They are called penalties for a reason, and it’s about time we started treating them as such.


One response to this post.

  1. I’m not sure I completely agree. I think there’s some value to allowing players to fight for the ball without having to be afraid to touch each other.

    And if referees will call it less because the punishment is more severe, couldn’t the decrease in calling frequency cause an increase in “minor” infractions?


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