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Upon Further Review: NFL Says OK To Challenges On Pass Interference

It’s human nature to procrastinate over a difficult situation until time grows short or something terrible happens to force your hand.

It’s that way in sports, too. Sometimes it takes an embarrassing state of affairs, resulting in a loud cry for reform, before ownership decides to stop dawdling and create change.

You’ll recall last year’s NFC Championship Game between the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints and the pass interference call that wasn’t that ultimately contributed to the Rams victory.

To review: Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman steamrolled Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis on a third-down play deep in Rams territory late in the fourth quarter. Despite the flagrant foul, no flag was thrown.

That horrifically bad call resulted in a tsunami of criticism that nearly blew the roof off NFL headquarters in New York.

Bill Vinovich

(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

There were those who felt bad for the Saints. But mostly, people were upset the officials on the field did nothing in their power to review and possibly correct a call everyone watching the game knew they blew.

One of the agenda items during this week’s NFL Meetings in Arizona was to discuss what could be done to prevent that from ever happening again. And Tuesday night, the league made the right call.

The owners voted to approve a proposal allowing offensive and defensive pass interference, including non-calls like the NFC Championship Game, to be subject to review.

The stipulation is coaches can challenge those calls in the first 28 minutes of each half. In the final two minutes of each half, those calls will be subject to a booth review. Coaches will still have only two challenge flags. They get a third if their first two were correct.

Strangely, the Cincinnati Bengals did not vote for the new rule. It passed 31-1.

As you might expect, the loudest voice asking for change was Saints coach Sean Payton. Sitting on the NFL’s competition committee, he argued for the amended rule change allowing coaches to challenge non-calls. He even made clear what impact missed calls could have on the game’s integrity in terms of sports betting.

“There was an owe-it-to-the-game responsibility,” Payton said. “And really I mean that. I think it’s important this isn’t going to be perfect always. We know that. The mere shape of the ball tells you it’s not going to bounce the same way. But these are fouls that the analysts are able to tell us they’re the most impactful fouls. I think we got it right.”

Saints owner Gale Benson sounded thrilled about rule change.

“This is what I wanted to happen. That’s why I made my statement,” Benson told reporters. “[The non-call in the NFC title game] will never happen again.

“We think it was a good change. We’re trying to address the two fouls that most impact games. … The last three years, coaches are being a little bit more judicious with their challenges. I think that will continue especially the minor fact that you now have a more meaningful play you can challenge.

“South of two minutes it’s in replay’s hands, but north of two minutes it’s in your hands. I think it won’t take back the way we watch a game. I just think it’s just two more calls.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said nothing would have happened had the teams not agreed it was necessary.

“I personally believe it was the fact that every club wanted to get, and the league wanted to get these plays right,” Goodell said. “Replay is to get it right. And ultimately people compromised, I think, on long-held views because they want to get the system right. They want to get the play right.”

Consider the change something of a minor miracle, even though it’s essentially on a trial basis for the 2019 season. Never in the league’s history had plays resulting in penalties been subject to review. And no one dealing with the competition committee originally felt great confidence that it would pass.

The committee initially forwarded a concept allowing only actual pass interference penalties to be reviewed. Committee chairman Rich McKay told ESPN four of the eight on the committee were initially opposed to allowing non-calls to be reviewed.

But Payton, Jason Garrett of the Cowboys, Kansas City’s Andy Reid and Patriots coach Bill Belichick pushed hard for it

“Replay has an important tool for us. It wasn’t able to correct something we wanted to have corrected in the past. That to me was the driving force at the end of the day,” Goodell said. “Our job is to get these right and we should use every available means to get them right. Replay is a great means to be able to do that.

“Will this solve every problem? Will this get us to perfect? It’s the old saying, right? Don’t let perfect get in the way of better. This is a very natural evolution and obviously a very positive thing.”

According to the NFL, defensive pass interference, which accounts for nine percent of all penalties, cost teams an average of 15.2 yards per call over the last three seasons. Of the 19 pass interference calls impacting win probability, 13 happened in the last two minutes of the game or in overtime.

“Ultimately, people compromised on long-held views because they want to get the play right,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “I could see it expanding to other plays in the future, but within the challenge system.”

Here is a look at other rule changes  made or put on hold:

  • Tabled a proposal to guarantee each team a possession in overtime.
  • Declined the chance to give teams a one-time option in the fourth quarter to have a fourth-and-15 from their 35-yard line, as an alternative to an onside kick.
  • Made permanent the 2018 changes to the kickoff rule.
  • Eliminated all blindside blocks to increase safety on punts and other plays.
  • Teams will now have a choice regarding timing of enforcement on a personal foul or unsportsmanlike conduct after a scoring play. The yardage can be marked off on the extra point or the kickoff.
  • The NFL’s officiating department can now eject players for flagrant fouls from its command center. Previously, it could eject players for non-football acts such as punching or fighting, but only referees could eject players for flagrant hits.
  • Voted to use competitive tiebreakers, rather than coin flips, for most ties in drafting order.