Behind NFL rules change: Saints' Sean Payton, coaching fraternity bulldozed their way to 31-1 win

PHOENIX – In the end, it took one hell of a challenge flag thrown by an entire fraternity of head coaches.

That’s what kept the NFL from screwing up its best opportunity to revamp instant replay this week. Despite text messages from inside meetings at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel that described a seemingly impossible quagmire of skepticism. Despite bleak looks from executives and whispers that team owners would likely shoot down whatever was advanced to them. Despite resistance to adding reviewable plays and anxiety over challenging judgement calls, the NFL figured out a middle ground.

It fixed instant replay about as best it could. And in a manner that the league’s head coaches, executives and owners almost universally agreed upon. Perhaps imperfect, but better than anything that has existed before. And certainly good enough to keep another playoff debacle like the blown pass interference in the NFC title game from happening next season.

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton speaks to the media during the NFC/AFC coaches breakfast during the annual NFL football owners meetings, Tuesday, March 26, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Roger Goodell: ‘Don’t let perfect get in the way’

“Will this solve every problem?” commissioner Roger Goodell asked rhetorically on Tuesday, after owners approved the replay changes 31-1. “Will this get us to perfect? It’s the old saying: Don’t let perfect get in the way of better, and this is a very natural evolution and obviously a very positive thing.

”The natural evolution is this: Next season, coaches will be allowed to use their challenges on offensive and defensive pass interference – including both flagged and unflagged plays. In the final two minutes of each half and overtime, the replay official will be able to initiate the same challenge.

That’s a massive shift in replay ideology for the NFL and one that isn’t taken lightly. Largely because it challenges the league’s long-defended “judgement” aspect of officiating when it comes to pass interference. But after a spate of meetings where head coaches repeated that this was a fixable – or at least improvable – problem, even the biggest skeptics began to listen. And that meant the world to some blatant pass interference calls (or non-calls) on defense and offense that have long antagonized head coaches, executives, fans and even team owners.

Out of sheer logic, it made sense to almost everyone that eliminating erroneous game-changing penalties would be a win for the quality of the game. But a nagging part of the conversation was the aspect of opening up non-calls to replay, like the blatant pass interference that wasn’t flagged on the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC championship game against the New Orleans Saints. The argument was fairly simple: if some part of pass interference could be improved, why not go all the way and make all pass interference (whether it was flagged or not) subject to being fixed via replay?

On Sunday, that latter part of the conversation was a dead issue for the league’s competition committee. And pressing for it could’ve created problems for any improvement of instant replay, let alone the judgement calls. That appeared to be happening as the first 24 hours of the league’s meetings ensued. By Monday night, the entire idea of replay logic was in jeopardy when it came to pass interference – only to be set back on the tracks by the impassioned efforts of a number of head coaches whose pleas ultimately brought the rule change home.

Sean Payton, Jason Garrett were strong advocates

It took New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton arguing his case to the competition committee and the media in seemingly every form. He spoke in the corridors of the Biltmore to other coaches and executives. He stood for media scrums on sidewalks and sat for television interviews. He even arrived 20 minutes early to the coaches breakfast on Tuesday, seemingly knowing he would have a room full of reporters to himself.

The ultimate message: Something had to change with instant replay where it concerned pass interference. And if it didn’t, that would mean that the owners were OK with the product being flawed in a way that was significant enough to change the destiny of a Super Bowl matchup.

Payton was convincing in the effort. He was engaging. His arguments were detailed and persuasive. He brought no shortage of emotion. And maybe most important, he pressed the recruiting role at every turn, pulling in as many influential coaches and executives as he could along the way.

History should remember that in the end, he wasn’t alone. Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett delivered a significant assist late Sunday night and then again on Tuesday. First, he spoke to a meeting of head coaches, urging them to consider the integrity of the game and getting it as right as possible when it came to wins and losses. Then he carried that speech over to ownership on Tuesday, delivering it with so much emotion and conviction that the group actually applauded at the conclusion of his remarks.

As Payton would say of Garrett later, “He was outstanding. He finished and I was like: ‘Dilly, Dilly.’”

But that could only come after the coaches had voted unanimously to expand replay on Monday night, which featured an effort led by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid to continue pressing and discussing the issue until the group could come to a compromise and reach a consensus. That meeting stretched on for nearly three hours. When it was done, the coaches had a unified front to present to owners – and the meaningful emotion to sway the room.

“It’s the best meeting I’ve been a part of in my 13 years [as a head coach],” Payton would say the next day.

Does NFL rule change make game better?

Time will tell if this was all worth it. But at the very least, what happened this week showcased an ownership group that can still be swayed by the collective power of its head coaching fraternity. And if it proved anything in the short-term, it was that what happened in the NFC championship game was every bit as serious as we thought it was.

Important enough to bring together 32 head coaches who almost never universally agree on everything. And serious enough to create a compromise that almost every NFL team owner could live with, even if it challenged archaic ideologies that seemingly never change.

Some of the most important people in the NFL came together and tried to make the game more sensible and logical next season. As challenge flags go, this collective one has a chance to be one of the best this league has ever seen.

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