Dirty Laundry: How far to be 'uncatchable?'

November, 9, 2011
11/09/11
11:15
AM ET
Rule 8, Section 5, Article 3(c) of the NFL rule book is straightforward. But as is the case with many NFL rules, the interpretation is not. Here is what it says, in part:
"Acts that are permissible by a player include but are not limited to … contact that would normally be considered pass interference, but the pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players…."

That instance would seem to apply to a key play in the fourth quarter of the Green Bay Packers' 45-38 victory Sunday over the San Diego Chargers. As you recall, Clete Blakeman's crew called Packers cornerback Charles Woodson for pass interference on a fourth-down incompletion, giving the Chargers a new set of downs to pursue the potential tying touchdown with three minutes, 26 seconds remaining in the game.

A look at the replay reveals Antonio Gates running a drag route along the Packers' 35-yard line and stopping abruptly at about the middle of the field. Woodson, trailing Gates in man coverage, kept running. The two collided as the ball sailed past them and fell to the ground.

Rational people could debate whether the play constituted pass interference. The rule book allows for both "incidental contact" and also for "inadvertent tangling of feet" when both players are competing for the ball. For the sake of this discussion, let's assume it was pass interference.

The ball landed about six yards past Gates and three yards behind him. I don't have the math degree to figure out the geometric number of yards the ball was, but let's just say Gates would have had to have some serious jets to have caught up to where quarterback Philip Rivers delivered the ball.

Blakeman's crew needed to decide whether the ball was "clearly uncatchable." I think you can make a reasonable argument that it was, but Blakeman must not have seen it that way. More often than not, when a receiver and defender collide and fall to the ground on a fourth-down play, you're going to see pass interference.

Dirty Laundry update: Two weeks ago, we reviewed a roughing-the-passer penalty against Packers linebacker Clay Matthews during a victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Matthews' hit didn't appear late and his contact with Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder was all below the neck.

We wondered if referee Peter Morelli threw the flag because Matthews grabbed Ponder behind the legs and drove him into the ground, a technical violation of NFL rules if Morelli deemed the hit unnecessary or violent. That would have made it a subjective judgment call.

In an appearance on "The Scott Van Pelt Show" on ESPN Radio, however, Matthews said he was told he launched into Ponder using the top of his helmet. That clearly didn't happen, which means Morelli simply missed it.

"When I had asked the ref what he had called me on," Matthews said, "he said I had used the top of my helmet to launch into him. I could see where he wouldn't be able to see the correct angle. It's understandable, but obviously with video replay and photos out there, I like to think it's a textbook tackle as well as any of the hits we put on quarterbacks. But it really comes down to a split decision, and you can't fault the refs for that. But at the same time, it did give them 15 yards and they went down to score and make the game that much closer."

Now, on to our Penalty Tracker:

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