Commentary

Hester's play reveals impact of pass interference penalties

Football Outsiders examines Devin Hester and the impact of pass interference penalties.

Originally Published: December 20, 2008
By Bill Barnwell | Football Outsiders

Man, did Devin Hester have a huge game last week. Just when the Bears needed a huge win, Hester busted out his first 100-yard receiving game of the season, setting up the Bears' winning drive in overtime with …

Wait, what's that? Hester didn't have 100 yards? Technically, he didn't. Hester was credited with 46 receiving yards against the Saints in Week 15. But in reality, the returner-turned-receiver gained 123 yards because of the 77 yards the Bears picked up on two pass interference penalties on throws to him.

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Pass interference is defined in the NFL rulebook as "Contact by a defender who is not playing the ball and such contact restricts the receiver's opportunity to make the catch." And while Hester didn't receive credit for the yardage gained, the Bears were able to pick up a first down and the yardage gained on each play.

Crediting Hester for those yards gained would totally change the story of the Bears-Saints encounter. Hester would be the star of the game, with a huge performance on the national stage, and would be closer to earning more than $10 million in performance-based incentives. Instead, because of an issue of accounting, none of those things happen.

Factoring in pass interference penalties can have a huge impact on how performance is calculated and valued. On average, receivers thrown 50 or more passes from 2002 through the first 14 games of the 2008 season had about 3 percent more yardage with their pass interference penalties factored in. That sounds like a small figure, but if a receiver has 975 yards in a season and his contract calls for an incentive to be paid if he hits the 1,000-yard plateau, that 3 percent would push him over the edge. If you think Drew Rosenhaus isn't talking about that stuff at the negotiating table, think again.

While the leaders tend to fluctuate from season to season, the best way to ensure that you get a lot of pass interference penalties called on you is to get a lot of passes thrown in your direction. Randy Moss was sixth in the league in 2007 with 160 pass attempts in his direction. Sure enough, he led the league with six pass interference penalties drawn. No one else had more than three, and giving Moss the 72 additional yards he earned would've bumped his receiving yards up from the 28th-best in a single season to 17th. Moss has picked up only two flags and 32 yards this year from opposing defenders.

The year before, Torry Holt was the most targeted receiver in football, with 179 attempts; his six pass interference calls for 152 yards dwarfed the rest of the league. This year, though, Holt hasn't drawn a single DPI.

Including pass interference, though, matters less to those eventual Hall of Famers than it does to the middle class of receivers, like Hester. If we look at pass interference yardage gained as a percentage above the receiver's total yardage, the most underappreciated season by a receiver with more than 50 passes thrown to him since 2002 would be the 2005 campaign of Redskins receiver David Patten. Patten had only 22 catches for 217 yards on the season, but he had 68 yards on two pass interference penalties, more than 31 percent of his prescribed total for the season. This year, Hester would see a yardage gain of about 15 percent.

Perhaps Hester wouldn't have caught either of those passes. We'll never know. Considering that 60 percent of the passes thrown by NFL quarterbacks are caught, though, it's more logical to assign Hester 100 percent of the yardage he would've gained than it is to give him 0 percent, as the league does now. You might argue that the quarterback has more to do with pass interference penalties than the receiver does. While that's reasonable, we still give the receiver the same amount of yards as we do the quarterback when they actually complete the pass, no? Both the quarterback and wide receiver deserve the yardage from pass interference, since there's never going to be a perfect way to assign credit for a throw to a quarterback, a receiver or a poor defense. The NFL's decision to determine which positions do and don't get credit on penalties could cost the wrong receiver at the wrong time millions of dollars.

Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.

Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) is a staff writer for Grantland.