Lawrence: What Is Clear And Obvious?

Many things in the NFL are "clear and obvious." The league's pass-interference review isn't one of them...

Amy Lawrence
October 01, 2019 - 8:46 pm
Patrick Mahomes Chiefs

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Clear and obvious.

That's the standard. In amending the NFL rule book to allow replay review for pass interference this season, the phrase chosen by the Competition Committee is "clear and obvious." On a one-year trial basis, these judgment calls are now subject to review, whether a flag is throw on the field or not. The section added to the rule book is littered with the phrase; in training, officials heard the line over and over.

"A pass interference ruling will be changed in replay only when there is clear and obvious visual evidence that the on-field ruling was incorrect. To change the ruling on the field, there must be clear and obvious evidence that contact 'significantly hindered' or 'did not significantly hinder' an opponent." Straight from the NFL rules, the language sets a high and consistent bar for overturning the decisions made by officials on the field. And yet, through the first month, the application has been inconsistent and hard to understand. What seems clear and obvious to analysts and fans is not always clear and obvious to Senior VP of Officiating Al Riveron and the league's replay braintrust in New York. Riveron wants us to keep in mind that he can only watch the various TV camera angles of each controversial call. He doesn't have other video resources to aid him in his decisions. The league is also attempting to be more transparent. Riveron records videos explaining the PI challenges and rulings and posts them to social media, including a new twitter account (@NFLOfficiating) established last February.

The problem is that pass interference has always been and will always be a judgment call, applied inconsistently from stadium to stadium. Each game features different officiating crews and different coaching staffs with their own ways of seeing and processing the action on the field. BEFORE the rule change, it was hard to find uniformity with PI. After the rule change, it feels even more complicated and convoluted, anything but clear and obvious. Of course, perfection is too much to ask. As VP of Football Operations Troy Vincent puts it, "There's humans involved. We think we can see everything, and sometimes, we fall short." But take heart, football fans; there is good news! As we survey the NFL landscape after the initial month of the season, we CAN pinpoint the clear and obvious.

Exhibit A: The Oakland Raiders knew the risks when they signed Vontaze Burfict to a free agent contract. The veteran linebacker bears a clear and obvious reputation for playing fast and loose with the safety of his opponents. His disregard for the new wave of rules barring helmet-to-helmet hits and unnecessary roughness is on tape for the world to see. In seven years with the Bengals, Burfict was fined or suspended 13 times for flagrant fouls, even head-hunting. Each time, the league warned him the penalties would get stiffer and more costly. The Raiders were aware of his resume and signed him anyway, designating him a captain. So it can be no surprise that Burfict led with his helmet when he rocked Colts tight end Jack Doyle on Sunday. Thankfully, Doyle did not experience concussion-like symptoms according to his head coach, Frank Reich, but Burfict was flagged and ejected. The league acted swiftly and suspended Burfict without pay for the rest of the season. While he can appeal, his pattern of behavior is clear and obvious.
 
Exhibit B: The strength of the 2019 New England Patriots is their defense. While it's clear and obvious that Tom Brady is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and still an elite quarterback, he doesn't need to be perfect for the Patriots to win the AFC East. To date, the defense has surrendered a grand total of ONE touchdown in four games! New England is allowing 6.8 points per game which is slightly ridiculous. The Pats also lead the league in stingy, giving up just 243.0 yards per game. The only team to allow fewer total yards is San Francisco, which was on a bye last week. It's clear and obvious the Patriots benefit from a wealth of experience on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the secondary. The McCourty twins and Patrick Chung have each logged more than a decade in the NFL, and Stephon Gilmore has played eight seasons. In the front seven, Michael Bennett, Lawrence Guy, Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jame Collins are all veterans with a collective 41 years of service. What hasn't this defense seen on the football field? So when Brady says the plane ride home from Buffalo "sucked" and watching film of the offense "sucked," it's clear and obvious that the defense takes pressure off and makes his job easier.
 
Exhibit C: Patrick Mahomes possesses the uncanny ability to deliver in the clutch, no matter what else happened during the course of a game. In Week 4, the Lions forced the reigning MVP out of his comfort zone. He had to rush throws; he missed on a handful of throws. The Lions were determined not to give up the back-breaking deep plays, so they doubled Mahomes' top targets like Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins. The aggressive Detroit defense kept him from throwing a touchdown pass, but none of that affected Mahomes in the final two-minute drill. He guided the Chiefs on a masterful 13-play scoring drive that included his scramble straight up the gut on 4th-and-8. Using all the tools available, he settled into his comfort zone. It's clear and obvious the more the pressure is ratcheted up, the more Mahomes rises to the occasion.
 
Exhibit D: The NFL is clearly and obviously in the business of dishing out healthy portions of humble pie from week to week. Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers torched the Rams defense with 48 points in Los Angeles. The Steelers defense dominated the line of scrimmage against the rival Bengals and sacked Andy Dalton a career-high eight times. Ouch. Nick Chubb and the Browns ran roughshod over the Ravens in Baltimore with 193 rushing yards. The Houston offense generated a meager 264 yards and looked atrocious in losing at home to the Panthers. Melvin Gordon gambled on himself with a holdout and lost both his leverage and a lot of money before finally reporting to the Chargers.
 
In case the NFL is looking for models of "clear and obvious" as it navigates the new wrinkles in replay review, these examples meet the standard. Here's hoping practice makes closer to perfect when it comes to the pass interference conundrum.


A well-traveled veteran of sports radio and television, Amy is the passionate host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program, After Hours with Amy Lawrence, from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Listeners can tune in from Canada and overseas, thanks to SiriusXM, cbssportsradio.com and the CBS Sports app. Amy has also handled basketball play-by-play and color duties for various radio and TV outlets over the past 15 years. Amy graduated from Messiah College with bachelor’s degrees in Communications & Accounting before earning her master’s in TV & Radio from Syracuse University. She is a native of Concord, NH.

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