It’s a legal maxim that “bad cases make bad law”. It was the renowned jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes who said back in 1904: “Great cases are called great, not by reason of their importance… but because of some accident of immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgment.”
And indeed, the egregious non-pass interference call in the NFC Championship game back on January 20th, which cost the New Orleans Saints a shot at the Super Bowl, has appealed to fans’ and teams’ feelings alike – and has distorted the NFL’s judgment. The new rule that allows review of offensive/defensive pass interference for both calls and non-calls is an extreme response to an egregiously bad decision, but doesn’t take care of the on-field problem.
For referees, it’s all about training and experience and creating as a result an almost physiological response to events that happen on the field or court: you’ve seen the play a dozen, hundreds or even thousands of times and with clear guidelines and proper coaching/supervision from above, you respond in a specific, consistent and correct manner every time.
From a “mechanics” point of view (referee mechanics in every sport is the positioning of the referees at any given moment), when I watch this pass interference play, I see a side judge who is off the sideline and behind the defender – what we would call a “straight-line” position in basketball referee parlance – blocked and with no open angle to see the play; and I see a down judge at the line of scrimmage who should be extending coverage down the field and who had an open angle to see this play, but didn’t call.
So an extremely bad decision leads to a bad rule – instant replay on judgment calls is very tricky business and a very slippery slope – when the remedy for repeated poor decision-making regarding pass interference (both offensive and defensive) is clearer guidelines and better training. As it stands now, there is so much grabbing, holding and pushing off before and while the ball is in the air that it makes any understanding of what is legal and not legal nearly incomprehensible to coaches, players and fans.