We all now know (if we already didn’t) that pass interference isn’t pass interference when the pass is uncatchable. But what more is there to know about what makes a pass uncatchable?
As it turns out, not much.
The official NFL rule book contains only one reference to the term “uncatchable.” Rule 8, Section 5, Article 3(c) identifies as a permissible act “[c]ontact that would normally be considered pass interference, but the pass is clearly uncatchable by the involved players.”
So, basically, the mugging of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski by Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly becomes permissible if the ball Gronkowski hoped to catch was “clearly uncatchable.” But the rule book provides no further guidance or definition as to what is or isn’t uncatchable, “clearly” or otherwise.
In such situations, the league’s officiating casebook can often help fill the gaps. In this situation, it doesn’t.
Here’s the only reference to the term “uncatchable” in the 106-page 2013 edition of the officiating casebook:
“A.R. 8.70 NOT PASS INTERFERENCE—PASS UNCATCHABLE
Third-and-4 on 50. Eligible receiver A2 runs to the B40, pushes off B2, and breaks to the sideline. The pass is thrown immediately to A2 but it is uncatchable and incomplete. Ruling: Fourth-and-4 on 50. No penalty for pass interference, as the pass is uncatchable by the involved player.”
So what is “uncatchable”? And what’s the difference between “uncatchable” and “clearly uncatchable”? The league provides no specific definition or guidance to the officials.
This lack of elaboration underscores that it’s ultimately a judgment call, falling within the discretion given to the officials when making judgment calls. Sometimes, discretion is exercised in a way that results in a finding that the ball was catchable (or, more accurately, not clearly uncatchable). Sometimes, the finding is that the ball was uncatchable (or, more accurately, clearly uncatchable).
In this case, Gronkowski was running to the goalpost, stride for stride with Kuechly. Safety Robert Lestar joins them briefly in the end zone from behind Gronkowski, but then Lester undercuts Gronkowski’s route as he continues to the post.
After Lester makes his move to the inside — while Gronkowski is still running to the post — Kuechly mugs Gronkowski and then Lestar makes the interception.
Could Gronkowski, but for the contact from Kuechly, have gotten around Kuechly and through Lester to catch the ball?
The decision ultimately made last night was no. The opposite outcome, that the ball was catchable (or, more accurately, not clearly uncatchable) would have fallen within the discretion that gets applied in real time without the benefit of replay review. It also would have been easier to defend it, especially if the Panthers had stopped the Patriots on first and goal from the one.
Either way, the officials are on their own to figure out what is and isn’t uncatchable.