Dirty Laundry: A.J. Hawk's leap

Consider this scenario from the point of view of an NFL game official:

A player is open in the end zone. The quarterback spots him and throws the ball. A defender, positioned behind the receiver, jumps into the vertical plane occupied by the receiver and knocks the ball away. It all happens in a millisecond. Both players crash to the ground.

Pass interference, right?

Referee Clete Blakeman's crew came to that conclusion with the clock showing 0:00 last Thursday night at Lambeau Field. New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles was the open receiver. Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk was the defender. The call was pass interference, giving the Saints possession at the 1-yard line for the final play of the game.

Longtime blog readers know we use this Dirty Laundry post to take a weekly look at officiating issues during the regular season. They often fall within a gray area of judgment, so I try to examine both sides in the context of the official NFL rule book and then offer a bit of analysis. The gray area of this case was especially deep.

Hawk has a pretty reserved personality on the field, so I took particular notice at how adamantly he protested the call. Asked afterwards about the play, Hawk said: "I'm going to try not to get fined here."

From the top, it seems clear where Blakeman's crew was coming from. Rule 8 Section 5, Article 2(b) of the NFL rule book states: "Acts that are pass interference include but are not limited to ... playing through the back of an opponent in an attempt to make a play on the ball."

Watching the play live, that's exactly what appeared to happen. Hawk seemed to climb Sproles' back, so to speak, to reach over him and knock the ball away.

In reality, this was an extraordinarily unique situation. Sproles, listed at 5-foot-6, is one of the shortest players in the NFL. In most cases, a defender couldn't jump over the shoulder of a receiver and lunge for the ball without initiating substantial contact.

When you watch the replay multiple times, however, Hawk did just that. Obviously I wasn't standing right next to them, but the replay indicates that Hawk -- at best -- grazed Sproles' right shoulder. Sproles was knocked to the ground by contact that occurred after Hawk knocked down the pass.

You might never see that kind of play on an NFL field again. Watching it live, it was natural to assume Hawk's torso hit Sproles' shoulder and knocked him down before he had a chance to catch the ball. So while I think Blakeman's crew might have made the wrong call, I can't come down too hard for it. In most instances, a defender leaping from behind to knock down a pass is going will initiate early contact. This was a rare case that didn't.

In previous incarnations, Dirty Laundry has concluded with a weekly look at NFC North coaches' success rates for challenges. I'll still hit those periodically during the year, but on a weekly basis I want to look at NFC North penalty totals with an assist from ESPN Stats & Information.

Below, you'll see each team's total number of penalties in Week 1, which includes penalties that were declined. I think that provides a more accurate illustration of how penalty-prone a team is over time.