No, it never occurred to Craig James, in the midst of the first great play he made as an Eagles cornerback — the first play he made, period, as an Eagles cornerback — that an official might penalize him for pass interference.
James had tracked the Packers’ Marquez Valdes-Scantling on that slant route near the goal line in the closing seconds of the Eagles’ 34-27 victory last Thursday, had slipped his left arm in front of Valdez-Scantling’s chest and deflected Aaron Rodgers’ pass into Nigel Bradham’s hands for an interception.
The snap was the third of James’ NFL career. The Eagles had signed him two days earlier, and he had helped save the game for them. So he joined his new teammates in the end zone to celebrate, and no, it did not occur to him that an official might have penalized him for pass interference.
But it did occur to other people at Lambeau Field. This is the NFL now. Of course, it did.
“A lot of contact there,” Troy Aikman said on the game’s national telecast as he watched a replay. “He might have gotten there a little quickly.”
Should James have been called for an infraction? Should the officials have kept their yellow flags holstered, as they did? The answers to those questions are irrelevant to the problem that the NFL faces: the declining credibility of its officiating.
You could cheer James and thank your lucky stars that the Eagles escaped Lambeau with that win. You could scream bloody murder and insist Rodgers should have gotten another shot to tie the game. You could find another play in that game, or several plays in that game, or several plays in another game, to pick over and argue about. It doesn’t matter. The problem would remain.
Sure, penalties lengthen a game, disrupt its momentum and flow, make it less entertaining. Those are legitimate complaints, but there’s something bigger at play here. It’s getting harder and harder to trust that the officials can and will make the right call at the right time for the right reasons. There is a perception — and it has been fed by a whole lot of reality — that any game, even the most consequential of games, will be decided by a dubious officiating call.
Think about Super Bowl LII, when Corey Clement and Zach Ertz scored touchdowns on receptions that, just a couple of months earlier, probably would have been ruled incompletions. Consider last season’s NFC Championship Game, when officials should have flagged Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman for pass interference and didn’t — the egregious mistake that led the NFL’s overcorrection: its new rule that coaches can challenge for replay reviews of pass-interference calls and non-calls.
Consider last week’s Eagles-Packers game again, when Doug Pederson and Matt LaFleur challenged what appeared to be obvious pass-interference penalties that had gone uncalled — and the replay officials upheld the on-field judgment. Consider the facemask infractions that haven’t been whistled and the tepid roughing-the-passer infractions that have.
“The hits, you never know,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “It used to be just a defenseless player, so you knew what kind of hits to look for. Now, you’re hitting the ball-carrier, and if you hit him too hard, you hit him the wrong way, you get a penalty. That’s always subjective. Then you’ve got pass interference getting reviewed. The quarterback, you can only hit him in the pocket. You’ve got all these other things.
“I do think it really is hard to understand what a penalty is nowadays.”
The irony is, this problem isn’t necessarily the officials’ fault. Of course there are excellent crews and sub-par crews. But the trouble is broader, more systemic and intrinsic. Officials have their orders, their guidelines, the points that they are told to emphasize, and technology and the NFL have done them no favors.
In the name of improving player safety and maintaining fairness, the rulebook keeps expanding. Referees, side judges, back judges, umpires: They have more to look for, more penalties to call, more plays (such as James’) that might or might not be penalties.
The players themselves are bigger and faster, the action harder to follow in real time, and since instant replay can tell the world in seconds whether a ref has fouled up an easy call, deliberate hesitation has been built into the officiating process.
It doesn’t matter that Carson Wentz’s knees and elbow were clearly down before he lost his grip on the football. You let the sequence play out. You wait for the replay to confirm what everyone already knows to be true. During that delay, no one thinks, Well, at least they’re getting it right. Everyone thinks, Why couldn’t those blind men get it right the first time? And the veneer of authority and reliability that is so essential to officiating wears away a little more.
“They’re out there trying their best like the players are,” James said. “Ain’t nobody perfect. You can’t fault them. They come back and watch film, and hopefully they get the call right the next time.”
That’s the hope. That’s always the hope. But the problem has no easy fix, if it can be fixed at all. Instant replay, which establishes in the minds of viewers an expectation of officiating perfection that no human being can meet, isn’t going anywhere.
By allowing pass interference to be reviewed, the NFL has increased subjectivity and, in turn, the likelihood of controversy and dissatisfaction. Did Craig James get away with a penalty last Thursday night in Green Bay? Did he just make a great play at the right time?