Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert
At the request of Dana, Stephen and others, I watched Chicago receiver Johnny Knox’s 102-yard kickoff return about 30 times this morning, hoping to answer the question of whether he released the ball prior to crossing the goal line. On that count, it looks very possible -- but probably too close for a replay official to overturn -- that Knox might have pulled a DeSean Jackson and dropped the ball before he officially scored a touchdown.
But to me, the answer to the bigger question -- What should have happened next? -- makes this controversy a bit moot. If officials did make the call, they would have had two options. In both cases, Chicago would have retained possession:
Rule it a goal-line fumble that, like Jackson’s play last season in Philadelphia’s game against Dallas, was not recovered before the whistle blew. In that case, the Bears would have gained possession at the 1-yard line.
Rule it an illegal forward pass, punishable by a 5-yard penalty. As pointed out by Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com, the ball ultimately ends up in the end zone. If officials ruled that Knox dropped it before he crossed the goal line, then it would by definition be a forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage. Even so, Chicago would have taken over 5 yards away from the spot of the penalty.
Clearly, the Bears would have been in good shape regardless of the outcome. So to find a call with more gray area, I turned to the pass interference penalty against Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson in the second quarter of Sunday’s game at Minnesota.
As you might recall, the Vikings were facing a first-and-goal at the Packers’ 3-yard line. Woodson made a spectacular interception of a Brett Favre pass intended for Sidney Rice in the end zone, but officials nullified the play by ruling Woodson interfered with Rice.
The NFL rule book defines pass interference as “any act by a player more than 1 yard beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders the progress of an eligible receiver’s opportunity to catch the ball.”
It goes on to list seven “prohibited acts” that can constitute pass interference:
Contact by a player who is not playing the ball that restricts the opponent’s opportunity to make the catch.
Playing through the back of an opponent in an attempt to make a play on the ball.
Grabbing an opponent’s arm(s) in such a manner that restricts his opportunity to catch a pass.
Extending an arm across the body of an opponent, thus restricting his ability to catch a pass, and regardless of whether the player committing such act is playing the ball.
Cutting off the path of an opponent by making contact with him, without playing the ball.
Hooking an opponent in an attempt to get to the ball in such a manner that it causes the opponent’s body to turn prior to the ball arriving.
Initiating contact with an opponent by shoving or pushing off, thus creating a separation in an attempt to catch a pass.
When you watch the replay, you see Woodson grab Rice’s hip with his right arm. It’s a veteran technique that isn’t specifically listed above and isn’t always called.
Did it hinder Rice from being in position to catch the ball? Quite possibly, yes. The move slows down Rice a bit and allows Woodson to establish inside position. Did Woodson knock Rice down? No. Was he draped on his back? Absolutely not.
To me, here’s the way to consider the call: Would Woodson have made the interception if he hadn’t touched Rice at all? Perhaps, but it would have been much less likely. I probably wouldn’t have argued with the decision had it been called either way.
We refer to that as fence-straddling in this business, but it’s one of the beauties of this feature. I don’t think we’ll always find a certain answer.
Update: Several of you have noted that Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop was called for encroachment on the play. Had pass interference not been called, the interception still would have been nullified. But the point of this exercise was, as much as anything else, to discuss the pass interference call in a vacuum.
On to our NFC North Challenge Tracker, updated through four weeks: