The 2 Most Confusing NFL Penalties on the Books in 2019

The advent of instant-replay along with rule changes that allow coaches to dispute NFL penalties and ball placement means that more of the flags flying from referees are being called into question on the football field. Part of the problem when it comes to calling fouls in the NFL and the resulting big-time fines is how the official rules seem to be in constant flux. While many of these changes are designed to protect players from unnecessary injuries, some of them are questionable in their own right. Let’s take a look at two NFL penalties that are just flat-out confusing.

1. Pass interference

In one recent adjustment to the rules, a clause calling for the ability to review pass interference calls just hit the books. Many are saying it will be a real game-changer considering some of the questionable calls refs have made in the past. But when it comes to offensive pass interference, not only is the rule sketchy at best, but it’s also being called much more often than it used to be.

If you were to consult the NFL rule book when it comes to pass interference calls in general, you’d find some terms that are crystal clear but are in contradiction to other parts of an act worthy of a penalty. The official rule is shown here and followed by a couple of questionable examples.

“It is pass interference by either team when any act by a player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders an eligible player’s opportunity to catch the ball. Pass interference can only occur when a forward pass is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage, regardless of whether the pass is legal or illegal, or whether it crosses the line.”

Why pass interference is so confusing

Pass interference flags are some of the most confusing NFL penalties we can think of because it's such a judgement call.
Pass interference ranks as one of the most confusing NFL penalties. | Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The language of the rule is why pass interference is one of the most confusing NFL penalties we see. The line between what’s allowed and what isn’t is so fine that it’s nearly invisible.

Prohibited: Contact by a player who is not playing the ball that restricts the opponent’s opportunity to make the catch OR 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. But it’s okay to swat the ball away, block or outright intercept the ball, so why isn’t that interference?

Permissible: Incidental contact by an opponent’s hands, arms, or body when both players are competing for the ball, or neither player is looking for the ball. If there is any question whether contact is incidental, the ruling shall be no interference.

The key word in this case after the term contact is whether or not it was incidental or intentional. That is where it’s a judgment call by the official, and it’s a why it’s one of the more confusing NFL penalties on the books. Sometimes, fans, players, and coaches consider the contact in a different way than how it was called on the field. Again, the ability to overrule these decisions could make a difference in 2019.

2. Excessive celebration and unsportsmanlike conduct

Touchdown celebrations started in the 1960s, but this is another of the NFL penalties that are pure judgment calls by officials. Some NFL fans enjoy the choreographed and rehearsed dance moves and celebrations, but some see it as an unnecessary delay of game. Others call foul because of the sexually suggestive movements. In any case, it goes back to the concept of this being a complete judgment call made by one of the officials. For example, during the 2018 season, there were some more confusing calls including:

  • It’s okay to jump onto the ground and make snow angels, but not cool to leap into a Salvation Army kettle located just outside the end zone
  • Dancing together with teammates is acceptable while “twerking” and other offensive moves aren’t allowed
  • Spiking the ball or pretending to shoot a celebratory basket is usually alright but faking a shot from an imaginary gun will garner a flag

But there’s that term “usually” as it refers to a judgment call potentially coming from one of the officials. A group of players doing a pre-choreographed dance could draw a flag if they gyrate their hips. Many victorious Raiders players regularly jump into the Black Hole fan section, but the Salvation Army bucket incident cost the Cowboys 15 yards and nearly got rusher Ezekiel Elliott a hefty fine from the NFL.

We’re sure that when the 2019 season kicks off with preseason games in August, we’ll start seeing flags flying and some questionable penalty calls. Luckily for us fans, we don’t have to worry about baffling NFL penalties called on us as we watch inside the comfort and privacy of our homes.