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NFL officials' main concern appears to be preserving the illusion of infallibility

Hunter Felt
Photograph: Nick Wass/AP

Let’s get this out of the way first: there’s no way a non-call ended up costing the Houston Texans the game on Sunday. The Texans ended up losing to the Baltimore Ravens 41-7 for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that Lamar Jackson threw for four touchdowns. Still though, there’s every reason for the Texans to be upset that NFL officials refused to make a clear pass interference call despite the benefit of reviewing the play.

The play in question came when Baltimore cornerback Marlon Humphrey grabbed Houston wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the end zone to break up a pass. Although the ruling on the field was an incomplete pass, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien challenged the call. Despite being about as clear cut of an example of defensive pass interference as one will find, the officials – as has been the norm since the NFL gave coaches the ability to challenge PI – declined to penalize the Ravens. If O’Brien had successfully challenged, the Texans would have had a first down on the Baltimore one-yard line, pretty much the ideal situation for them to pick up seven points. Instead, the team lost a time out and they failed to score.

“I have no idea what pass interference is anymore,” O’Brien said after the game, with the very clear implication that he wasn’t the one who was confused about the definition.

It was not the best day for the officials, as the Minnesota Vikings’ 27-23 comeback win over the Denver Broncos was also marred by a no-call, this time on the final play of the game. Broncos fans were quick to jump online to express their outrage, but at least, in this case, they didn’t have to see officials miss the call twice.

It’s the failure of the challenge system, however, that seems to be a larger source of frustration. Hopkins went out of his way to call out NFL vice president of officiating Al Riveron. “As a leader in the NFL,” Hopkins tweeted out, “we need someone new in New York deciding calls.”

Related: 'Stop running from the truth' Colin Kaepernick calls out NFL after tryout

This could all sound like sour grapes from a team that were pretty much demolished on the field after the call. Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson’s remarks that “it could have been a changing point of the game. A momentum switch,” ignored the fact that this was a one-sided game and it’s hard to imagine an early touchdown making that much of a difference. That shouldn’t distract from the reality that Hopkins is 100% right. Before Sunday night, coaches lost 32 of their last 33 challenges of pass interference calls. Now, as with all challenges in the NFL, a healthy percentage of those flags were doomed to begin with, so it’s understandable if a majority of the calls stand.

However, the overwhelming numbers make it clear that the referees simply are not going to overturn pass interference calls or non-calls that meet the criteria of “clear and obvious visual evidence”. The rule change was supposed to at least give officials an out, a way to prevent game-changing mistakes like the missed call that occurred in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game last season. Instead, it appears that officials are more concerned about preserving the illusion of their own infallibility.

If this continues to be the case, it’s hard to see the NFL keeping the pass interference challenge rule around as is. At some point, coaches are going to just hang on and use their flags for situations where they stand a decent chance of coming out ahead. The discontent around the league could be enough for the NFL to scrap the experiment after a single season.

Stat of the week

49,383. That’s the number of yards thrown by Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in his career after a 311-yard performance in Sunday’s 29-3 victory over the Carolina Panthers. It vaulted him over Warren Moon’s 49,325 passing yards, and into 10th on the NFL’s all-time list. It’s a reminder of how great the 2016 MVP has been despite the fact that he’s often been overshadowed by the era’s other brilliant quarterbacks.

MVP of the week

Jamal Adams celebrates one of his three sacks on Sunday. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Jamal Adams, safety, New York Jets. The 24-year-old picked up three sacks during the Jets’ 34-17 win over Washington. Adrian Wilson set the record for sacks by a safety in a season when he managed eight in 2005. Adams has five in the last two games.

Quote of the week

“He don’t want to play” – ESPN talking head Stephen A Smith on Colin Kaepernick’s last-minute decision to change the location of his NFL workouts on Saturday.

As usual, Smith had quite a bit more to say than that. In fact, he posted a three-minute video alleging that Kaepernick changing his workout venue to a high school stadium was evidence that the long-exiled quarterback has no interest in returning to football. That conclusion led to a response from Kaepernick’s close friend Eric Reid, who accused Smith of “tap dancing for the NFL.”

An interesting sidenote: Smith’s thoughts are apparently echoed by Jay-Z, who reportedly pressured the NFL to hold the initial tryout. A source has told XXL that the rapper, who officially partnered with the league during the offseason, believes that “Kaepernick turned a ‘legitimate workout’ into a publicity stunt.” Of course, if you ask those whose interests aren’t in-line with the league’s, the legitimacy of the whole affair felt highly questionable from the start.

Video of the week

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot does quite a bit in this touchdown. First, there’s the catch itself where Elliott scoops up a low throw from Dak Prescott before taking off. Then there’s the celebration, in which he imitates Prescott’s pregame dance that went viral last week. Prescott himself had a great day, throwing for 444 yards during the 35-27 win over the Detroit Lions.

Elsewhere around the league

-- A couple of great comebacks that could prove crucial later in the season. The San Francisco 49ers spurned more than a few chances to beat the Seattle Seahawks last week. On Sunday they found themselves 16-0 down to the Arizona Cardinals and it would have been easy for them to crumble after the events of the Seahawks game, but this time they came back to win 36-26. The Minnesota Vikings had an even better rally – they overcame a 20-point deficit against the Denver Broncos, and stayed in the race in the NFC North.

-- The Cincinnati Bengals’ bid for a Completely Defeated Season continues thanks to a 17-10 loss to the Oakland Raiders. At 0-10 they are now “ahead” of 1-9 Washington for the worst record in the league, and very well may end up going completely winless. In either case, the top pick in the 2020 draft is theirs to lose.

-- Nick Foles returned to lead the Jacksonville Jaguars against the Indianapolis Colts, but the change from Gardner Minshew didn’t end up helping the Jags offense: they lost 33-13. With the win, and the Texans’ loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the 6-4 Colts managed to secure first place in the AFC South thanks to owning the tiebreaker, but they did lose running back Marlon Mack to a fractured hand in the process.

-- Thanks to their 37-20 win over the Miami Dolphins, the Buffalo Bills have very quietly built themselves a 7-3 record, which would make them the fifth seed in the AFC if the postseason began today. It would be easy to dismiss their record as partly the result of sharing the AFC East with the 2-8 Dolphins (who they have beaten twice) and the 3-7 New York Jets (who they have beaten once and will see again), but then again one could say that about the New England Patriots.

-- Speaking of those Patriots, maybe Julian Edelman should have been in as quarterback on Sunday. The Patriots managed only one touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl LII rematch and it didn’t come from Tom Brady. Instead, Brady pitched a lateral to Edelman – who played QB during college – and the receiver promptly threw to Phillip Dorset in the end zone to put New England up 17-10. It turns out that would be the last scoring play as the Patriots defense took over the game in the second half. The 9-1 Patriots remain tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the best record in the league.