EAGAN — As the referee threw his penalty flag, Mike Zimmer dipped into his left pocket and fired the red challenge flag onto the field. There had been contact on a pass play down the right sideline.
There was no review, however. This was the Vikings’ annual night practice in front of thousands of fans. Video review wasn’t exactly in the cards, but the coach wanted to be prepared.
With pass interference reviewable for the first time in NFL history, coaches will be using the preseason to test the threshold of what is and isn’t going to be overturned upon slow-motion replay.
“My flag is probably going to get emptied out in the preseason,” Zimmer quipped earlier in camp.
The head coach did, indeed, throw the red flag in Minnesota’s preseason opener. Zimmer heard from an assistant that there might’ve been offensive interference against the Saints on a first quarter screen pass to Alvin Kamara, but Zimmer admitted later on it probably wasn’t his best decision.
That’s exactly what officials want from coaches, however, in the preseason.
NFL referee Jerome Boger and his crew presented to Twin Cities reporters Thursday and said they were encouraging coaches to throw challenge flags liberally in the preseason to iron out the review process. There were 15 challenges of pass interference in the first week of preseason play, yielding just one overturned call. A booth-initiated review produced another overturn.
Zimmer’s attempt to challenge an OPI against the Saints raises the question of what reviewable pass interference means for offensive players.
Per NFLPenalties.com, offensive pass interference was just the 12th-most called penalty in 2018 with 85 flags. Compare that to 249 defensive pass interference calls, the third-most flagged penalty.
There will be consequences for the offense with the new rule, even though defenders are most likely to get busted. For instance, using showmanship to draw pass interference will be harder, even if a receiver can fool the official in real time.
Take the 2017 NFC Divisional game between the Vikings and Saints. Stefon Diggs earned a 34-yard penalty on defensive back Ken Crawley by grabbing Crawley’s arm and falling down when the ball appeared out of reach. That’s unlikely to hold up in a review situation.
Plays like the one above may be easy to reverse, but the best receivers find ways to impose subtle contact to create last-second separation. Zimmer doesn’t think that type of action will typically be flagged.
“I don’t think they’re going to call it that tight,” said Zimmer, “and I don’t think if you throw the flag they’re going to call it and put the flag on the ground. I don’t think so. If they extend their arm, they’ll call it, but if they nudge them with their elbow or something like that, then I don’t think they will.”
The officiating crew that spoke Thursday said there’s no defined threshold of what might constitute an offensive pass interference call. Refs will fall back upon the the terms “clear and obvious” and “significantly hinder.”
In condensed form: Is it clear and obvious that the offensive player significantly hindered the defensive player’s right to the football? According to Boger, jostling from both players could result in offsetting fouls and a replay of the down.
“You’re looking for what’s incidental versus what actually places that other player at a disadvantage,” one of Boger’s assistants said, “whether it’s offense or defense, either one; if it significantly hinders him.”
Officials said Thursday they will officiate plays in real time the same way as they always have. Zimmer said he thinks defensive backs will be as physical as they’ve been in the past. And Vikings receiver Adam Thielen said he doesn’t plan on playing any differently.
“For us, when the ball’s in the air we’ve got to go get it,” said Thielen. “Whatever it takes to go get it, I guess, and then you live with the consequences. If you push off and you get a flag then you learn from it and you try to keep your hands out of it. But for us, when the ball’s in the air, I’m not thinking, ‘Don’t get offensive pass interference.’ I’m thinking about going and getting the football.”
As of now, players and officials don’t seem intent on changing behavior until they test the stringency of the replay process. Week 1 of the preseason supports that approach, with only one challenge changing the result of a play. But defensive players may be at their most vulnerable when held to the standard of slow-motion replay. Cincinnati’s Brandon Wilson had an interception overturned by booth review in last week’s preseason game against Kansas City because teammate Tony Lippett hit the receiver just before the ball arrived.
There are three preseason games left for Zimmer and his fellow coaches to get a feel for the new rule. Likewise for receivers and defensive backs. As the NFL has experienced with rule changes in the past, there are bound to be growing pains.
“I think it’s a work in progress,” Zimmer said. “They went quick with it. They went quick with it and passed it at the owners’ meetings, and they’re finding out there’s some possible unintended consequences coming about.”