Luke Inman contributed to this story.
Sitting at his locker, still wearing his cleats and pants over half an hour following the end of a 21-16 loss in Green Bay, Stefon Diggs scrolled through his phone despondently in the Lambeau Field visitors’ locker room.
Diggs was at the center of some of the game’s biggest plays but ended up on the short end in virtually every instance. Even after scoring a touchdown in the third quarter, Diggs ripped off his helmet in celebration for an automatic 15-yard penalty that head coach Mike Zimmer deemed “selfish” as it consequently extended the Vikings’ extra point attempt, which was blocked.
But many of the other plays involving Diggs and several of his teammates involved flagged or unflagged pass interference calls — the latest officiating headline to come from a Vikings-Packers showdown.
Diggs had a second touchdown wiped away due to an offensive pass interference call on Dalvin Cook away from the ball that was called by replay officials in New York after a long delay. Cook was ruled to have been blocking a defender downfield in a “clear and obvious” way, to use the league’s jargon, while the ball was in the air, a subtle infraction that was tough to spot with the naked eye. The 10-yard penalty backed the Vikings up to the 13-yard line, and they were forced to settle for a field goal.
“It was a bad call,” Zimmer said. “It got replayed, and I still think it was a bad call. Dalvin was not trying to block anybody. He was trying to get out of the way.”
Perhaps the oddest part of the play was the communication from the official, who didn’t identify Cook in his announcement and was no clearer with the Vikings on the sideline. Neither Cook nor Zimmer knew after the game who the penalty had been called on.
“The official on the sideline who was talking to me, he kept saying it was the second guy through,” Zimmer said. “He didn’t say what number. He didn’t say who it was. So I didn’t understand what he was saying. Technically, he was not the second guy through, so I don’t know.”
One can imagine the officiating crews’ confusion as well, considering reviewable pass interference is new for all parties, refs included.
Sunday’s game seemed to be a testing ground, however, for an increased emphasis on identifying offensive pass interference. The infraction on Cook was one of four called in the game, three of which came against the Vikings. Diggs and Thielen were each flagged too.
“I feel like it was a point of emphasis this game,” Diggs said afterward. “I feel like they went the extra mile trying to emphasize it as a whole. We just have to watch the tape and figure out what’s what because I don’t know the calls anymore. I haven’t seen it on tape, I don’t know if I pushed off, I asked him at halftime, he said, ‘You can’t close fist, use your shoulder.’ You can’t extend at all.”
Diggs’ frustration was evident at halftime when he chased down field judge Allen Baynes and gestured animatedly about the rulings in the first half. The receiver was eventually restrained by a Vikings assistant before things escalated.
But Zimmer insists it’s incumbent upon the Vikings receivers to play by the rules. Diggs’ arm extension against Kevin King likely would’ve been called in previous seasons.
“If you extend your arm, you’re going to get called,” Zimmer said. “That hasn’t changed one bit. It’s never changed. If you go out there and extend your arm, you’re going to get called. There is no gray area with that whole thing. It’s been the same way for a long time.”
Zimmer has a point on the call against Diggs. But through two weeks, offensive pass interference calls are being more strictly legislated. Albeit in a small sample size, referees are on pace to throw 136 offensive pass interference flags, by far the highest total recorded in the last decade, per NFLPenalties.com. Defensive pass interference is on pace to get 240 calls, roughly the same total as last year (249).
The offensive call against Thielen resided in a gray area. The Vikings receiver grappled with a defender to come back to an underthrown ball in the end zone.
“Just trying to make a play on the ball, that stuff happens,” Thielen said. “Obviously you don’t want to have a PI on you, but trying to make a play on the ball and you have to do what you have to do.”
If the NFL is going to crack down on the rule, Zimmer says he just wants to see consistency.
“I’m just sitting up there watching some tape right now, and there was some offensive pass interferences that they missed in the game that I’m watching,” Zimmer said, “so they need to start being more diligent with what they’re doing.”
The reviewable potential of all passes has put each play under a microscope. Diggs was involved in two plays where there was contact initiated by the defender before the catch, including Cousins’ fourth-quarter interception that decided the game. But presumably, that play was reviewed by New York for pass interference because there was a change of possession.
In previous years, these might be deemed good no-calls by a judicious officiating crew, but the call against Cook in the end zone demonstrated a letter-of-the-law strictness from New York that brings the standard for reversal into question. That’s going to require even more attentiveness on coaches’ parts to determine when to challenge.
This, of course, all stems from last year’s NFC Championship Game, where a no-call against the New Orleans Saints harmed their chances of heading to the Super Bowl. Zimmer opined again Monday that the NFL didn’t anticipate the effects of making a judgment call open to review.
“I think maybe they decided that they were going to fix the play in the championship game,” said Zimmer, “and there’s been some intended consequences from it and that’s just how it is. Just got to play by the rules and do what we’re supposed to do.”