Penalties are frequently called in the game of football, but there’s no penalty more controversial and confusing than pass interference.
With the recent rule changes, we’re seeing referees call pass interference more than ever before and it’s causing widespread frustration among coaches, players, fans, and NFL executives.
So, what is pass interference in football?
Pass interference is a penalty that’s called when a player hinders another player’s fair attempt at catching the ball. The penalty must occur more than 1 yard past the line of scrimmage. The defense is penalized from the spot of the foul, while the offense is penalized 10 yards and repeats the down.
Since pass interference is more of a judgment call than anything else, there’s often a lot of controversy that surrounds each call. Sometimes the referees make a bad call and sometimes they make the right call. You’ll often see players and coaches making their case on the sidelines.
While there are a lot of moving parts and rule changes that come with the pass interference penalty, we’re going to break down everything you need to know about it below.
NFL Pass Interference Rule
The NFL rule for pass interference gets more confusing every single year. It seems like they’re always changing the rules for this penalty, with the most recent change coming in 2019. While these changes try to help improve the game, they’re difficult to keep track of.
In the official NFL rulebook, the league defines pass interference as any illegal act that happens more than one yard past the line of scrimmage that impedes a receiver or cornerback’s ability to catch an incoming ball.
While some contact is permissible, players must be given a fair opportunity at catching any ball heading their way.
Pass interference is only applicable when a forward pass is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage. It can only be called on the offense if the ball has been snapped, but it hasn’t been touched by the receiver or cornerback.
It can only be called on the defense if the ball has been thrown, but hasn’t been touched yet.
Now that we understand the basics behind the NFL’s pass interference penalty, we can look at the various permissible and prohibited acts with the penalty. This is where referees must use their best judgment in determining what’s legal or illegal behavior.
First, let’s take a look at what’s illegal:
- Contact by a player not playing the ball that interferes with another player’s ability to catch the ball
- Pushing or shoving your opponent to create separation
- Playing through the back of another player when making a play on the ball
- Hooking another player so they can’t move or jump how they normally would
- Grabbing or tangling up with the opponent’s arms to impede their catching ability
- Cutting off another player’s path without making a play on the ball
- Restricting a player’s ability to catch an incoming pass by extending your arm across their body
Now let’s take a look at what’s legal, in regards to the pass interference penalty:
- Incidental contact by the hands, arms, or body, whether or not the players are making a play on the ball (when in doubt, referees usually rule no penalty)
- Accidental tangling of the feet whether or not both players are making a play on the ball
- In the event of an uncatchable pass, no penalty is given to either team — even if pass interference occurred
- Placing your hands on an opponent in a way that doesn’t restrict their ability to catch the ball
- Making contact with a player that has gained position on the opponent when catching the ball
In the NFL, it’s important to remember that defensive players are regarded as eligible receivers once the ball is in the air.
They’re subject to the same restrictions and path guidelines as a receiver, which is why both offensive and defensive pass interference exist.
If contact occurs less than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage, it can’t be called pass interference — though it could be called holding. It’s also important to remember that referees usually side with a no-call when there’s doubt or inconclusive evidence about the contact involved.
The punishment for pass interference in the NFL depends on who’s receiving the penalty. If it’s on the offense, they lose 10 yards from their previous spot and repeat the down.
If it’s on the defense, the offense is awarded a first down at the spot of the foul. If it happens in the end zone, the ball is awarded at the one-yard line (or half the distance to the goal, whichever is more beneficial).
College Pass Interference Rule
The NCAA follows a lot of the same principles as the NFL regarding pass interference calls on the offense and defense.
In college football, it’s still a judgment call by the referee and is often something they discuss before making the official call. College referees need clear evidence of contact if they’re going to make the call.
While the rules for what’s allowed and not allowed are similar between the NFL and NCAA, there are some striking differences in the punishments given to each team. For example, offensive pass interference results in a 15-yard penalty from the previous spot and a repeat of a down.
Defensive pass interference is a little more complicated. If the spot of the foul is 15 yards or less from the line of scrimmage, the offense gets the ball at the spot of the foul and a first down.
If it occurs further than 15 yards out, it stays a 15-yard penalty no matter where it happens.
If the defensive penalty occurs anywhere between the 2 and 17-yard line, the offense gets the ball at the two-yard line and a first down. If the penalty happens inside the 2-yard line, the offense gets a first down and the ball halfway between the goal line and the previous spot.
Offensive vs Defensive Pass Interference
When referees call pass interference during a game, they must identify whether it’s on the offense or defense. It’s one of the things that keeps fans on the edge of their seats after the whistle blows. It’s either going to hurt or help your team.
Since pass interference is a judgment call by the referee, there’s often a lot of frustration when it’s called.
What looks like offensive pass interference to one person might look like defensive pass interference to another person. That’s why referees huddle up before making the call, to ensure they’re making the right call.
The good news is there’s a lot of similarities between offensive and defensive pass interference. Both players have the same rights when attempting to catch the ball, so it’s illegal contact no matter who it’s on.
The problem is figuring out who initiated the contact and whether it was incidental or not.
When called on the offense, they simply lose 10 or 15 yards and repeat the down. When called on the defense, the offense gets a first down at the spot of the foul (unless the foul occurs further than 15 yards from the line of scrimmage in college).
Any good receiver or cornerback knows what type of contact is permissible by NFL rules and regulations. They’re able to interfere with the opponent’s ability to catch the ball legally, opposed to making illegal contact and being assessed a penalty.
History of the Pass Interference Rule
Believe it or not, gridiron football didn’t always feature forward passes. Up until 1906, both college and professional football consisted of runs and passes behind the line of scrimmage. 1906 was a very important year for football, which is when they legalized the forward pass.
This brought an entirely new dimension to the game of football and caused league decision-makers to rethink the rules of the game. Within three years of legalizing the forward pass, teams at all levels were taking advantage of the lack of interference penalties.
Rule makers knew changes were imminent, it was just a matter of making the right ones.
1909 marked the first year of interference calls in football. Rule makers wanted to prevent unfair play when catching the ball beyond the line of scrimmage, especially since everything was fair game for both the receiver and defender.
Of course, this rule wasn’t perfect and rule-makers have changed it multiple times since its inception.
Initially, receivers were allowed to use their hands to free themselves of the defender as they moved down the field, lineman could block downfield with no penalty, and defenders couldn’t push or pull the receiver away from the ball unless they were going for the ball themselves.
In addition to that, pass interference was initially only called within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Offensive pass interference resulted in a loss of a down, while defensive pass interference was a first down and 10 yards for the offense.
Is Pass Interference Reviewable?
One of the most common questions people have when discussing pass interference is whether or not it’s reviewable. The quick answer is no, but the NFL made things confusing in 2019 by making them reviewable — something they quickly eliminated the following year.
It was a one-and-done experiment and for good reason.
Pass interference is a highly-subjective penalty, whether it’s seen in real-time or during a replay. When the NFL made these calls reviewable, no one was ever left with any closure because some people still felt the call was wrong.
It was a messy situation that the NFL ignited, but eliminated for the following season.
While they aren’t reviewable (as of the 2020 season), referees are trained to discuss these calls before making them official. You’ll often see the referees huddle up, that way the head ref receives input from everyone.
If there’s ever any doubt with the call, it’s disregarded and no penalty is called.
There are some instances where a defensive or offensive player commits pass interference, but it’s not called by the referee.
This generally happens when the ball isn’t deemed catchable by the referee, which means the receiver or defender didn’t have a chance at catching the ball — with or without penalty.
Unfortunately, this can also be a very subjective call. Players are extremely talented these days and they make some incredible plays that leave you in awe.
It’s very hard to determine what an uncatchable pass is sometimes and it leads to widespread frustration among players and coaches.
When the referee is in doubt about a pass interference call, they usually rule in favor of no penalty. If there’s any doubt about whether a pass is catchable or not, the pass is always deemed catchable — not the other way around.
The Sean Payton Rule Change
Pass interference calls are much more common today than they were in the 1900s. During the 2019 season, there were a total of 101 offensive pass interference calls and 284 defensive pass interference calls throughout the league.
The LA Rams and Washington Football Team had the least amount of defensive pass interference calls with four each, while the Houston Texans were the only team with zero offensive pass interference calls.
The point is you’re going to see pass interference called almost every game you watch. Despite how harmful they are to the momentum of a game, they’re one of the more popular penalties in the NFL and NCAA.
Of course, there’s no example like the one in 2019 that inspired the ‘Sean Payton Rule.’
Sean Payton is the Head Coach of the New Orleans Saints and he was a heavy advocate for changing the rulebook to allow reviews for pass interference calls.
The previous season, the Saints were eliminated from the playoffs due to a missed pass interference call that should’ve gone the Saints’ way.
It was an embarrassing day for the referees, who cost the Saints a chance at the ultimate prize, which led the NFL to allow reviews on pass interference calls the following year.
Like we mentioned above, that rule only lasted one year and the NFL returned to their original rules for the 2020 season.
Pass Interference vs Holding
Pass interference and holding are two very similar penalties in gridiron football, but there’s one major difference between the two. Holding is a pre-pass penalty, meaning it can’t be called on a player once the ball is thrown.
Pass interference, on the other hand, occurs once the ball is in the air (for the defense).
Holding is easy to spot. It occurs when a player grabs onto and holds another player to restrict their movement. Most of the time, you can tell a player is holding by looking at the opponent’s jersey — which is generally what players hold onto.
Holding that occurs when the ball is in the air is simply called pass interference.
A holding penalty results in a 5-yard penalty and automatic first down for the offense, whereas pass interference is either a 10-yard penalty on the offense or a first down and the ball at the spot of the foul for the offense.
If you’re going to hold someone, make sure it’s before the ball is thrown. Of course, avoiding holding all-together is recommended.
Pass Interference vs Illegal Contact
In addition to holding, pass interference calls are often confused with illegal contact calls — which look exactly like pass interference.
Yet again, the main difference here is that illegal contact is called pre-pass, and pass interference is called post-pass. Illegal contact while the ball is in the air would be called pass interference.
Illegal contact is a little different from holding. Where holding refers to grabbing your opponent and holding them from breaking free, illegal contact refers to just about any other contact downfield.
It should be noted that receivers and defenders are allowed contact within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.
Anything past that is considered ‘downfield.’ Much like a holding penalty, illegal contact is a 5-yard penalty that results in an automatic first down.