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Unpopular Opinion: College football’s less draconian pass interference penalty is better than NFL’s

Let’s stop giving NFL refs the chance to play God. 

NCAA Football: Penn State at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about what we would do if we were in charge of our favorite position group, team, conference, or sport. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all our “Unpopular Opinion” articles here.

While the bright lights and loud fans of college football give the impression that NCAA football resembles NFL football, football at these two levels is actually different enough to almost be a unique game. Sure, on the surface, it’s the same game, but rule and strategy differences between the two make them different beasts.

Some of these differences are major — the size of the field, the overtime rules, and the fact that NFL games can end in a tie (stupid, this isn’t European football). But there is one difference I take issue with in particular.

It’s a seemingly minor difference, but my take seems to be unpopular nonetheless. In fact, every time I bring it up with my friends and family, I get yelled at. So if you think I’m an idiot, by all means, say so. I promise I’ve heard it all before. Or, if by chance you agree with me, let me know so I can rest peacefully in my vindication.

I don’t know much, but I know that I absolutely HATE the NFL penalty for defensive pass interference.

Let me first explain defensive pass interference for those who might not be familiar. Per the NFL rulebook, defensive pass interference is any act by a defensive player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage that significantly hinders an eligible player’s opportunity to catch the ball. The rules apply from the time the ball is thrown until the time the ball is touched.

In the NCAA, defensive pass interference is contact beyond the neutral zone by a defensive player intentionally and obviously impeding an eligible opponent to prevent the opponent from catching a legal forward pass.

In both instances, there are lists of behaviors that are not considered pass interference (such as legal defensive contact before the ball is thrown), along with lists of prohibited behavior. Offensive pass interference also exists in both college and pros, though I’m really only looking at defensive pass interference today. We don’t need to get into the nitty-gritty of how these penalties are called here, because what I really take issue with is what happens when such a penalty is called in the NFL.

In the NFL, the penalty for defensive pass interference is an automatic first down at the spot of the foul. In the NCAA, if the spot of the foul is less than 15 yards from the line of scrimmage, the penalty is an automatic first down at the spot of the foul. If the penalty is more than 15 yards from the line of scrimmage, it’s a 15-yard penalty with an automatic first down.

I hate the NFL’s rule.

There are two main arguments I hear from haters of the NCAA version (my own father included) time and time again. The first is that having such a minimal penalty in college might actually make pass interference part of the strategy. While the NFL’s harsh penalty for defensive pass interference serves to really discourage such a move, there are times in the NCAA when taking a 15-yard penalty to stop a huge pass play or potential scoring drive could actually be a strategic move that entices guys to take the 15-yard hit if it means stopping a touchdown.

I actually think there is some merit to this argument. In fact, when defensive pass interference discourse came to a head in 2019, the play in question would probably be a good example of when you might want to intentionally interfere.

In the final two minutes of the 2019 NFC Championship game, the Saints and Rams were tied. Tommylee Lewis looked set to make a huge catch for the Saints when, out of nowhere, he was absolutely obliterated by the Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman. The interference was so obvious my grandmother could have seen it from space without her glasses, and yet, it was crickets from the ref.

This no-call arguably cost the Saints the game, spurred discussion and debate in the NFL, and led to a year-long trial of reviewing/challenging pass interference calls.

The NFL has since done away with this pass interference review system though (another story for another day), which brings us to my main problem: Defensive pass interference is incredibly subjective.

Some refs let guys play, while other officials are more eager to throw the flag. And in all circumstances, officials are humans with margins of error.

In critical situations late in a close game, a defensive pass interference call has the ability to determine the outcome of a game. Just as the no-call stole a potential score from the Saints in 2019, so too can a mistaken toss of the flag hand points to a team that didn’t earn them. The review system implemented by the NFL was certainly flawed, but to have no recourse on a bad call that could realistically hand 40-80 yards to an opponent in a crucial moment feels insane.

The second argument I hear from pro-NFL-versioners is that the NFL way keeps things exciting.

I also agree with this, but at what cost? A little excitement, to me, is not good enough reason to let one flawed person potentially change the outcome of a football game.

Let’s not act like 15 yards and an automatic first down isn’t a huge momentum shift in its own right. Give a team a first down in a critical situation, and that too can change the game. But it feels different than handing them a potentially extreme number of yards. It’s costly, but the punishment fits the crime.

If the NFL really wants to course-correct to avoid referees playing God late in the game, they should take the NCAA’s approach and make it a harsh penalty but not so harsh that it gives the game away.