ATLANTA — So let’s say it’s late in the fourth quarter of a New England Patriots game, third-and-long, a conversion desperately needed. It could be the Super Bowl. It could be any game.
And let’s say that, as many have suggested in the wake of the blown non-call in the NFC championship game, that the NFL now allows for pass interference to be reviewed via video after a coach’s challenge.
Bill Belichick, knowing he still has that challenge at his disposal, decides to use it as a weapon and call what is now the most high-probability play he has, one designed to create interference.
Line Rob Gronkowski up wide and have him run a fly-route, all but forcing some undersized defensive back to bump or hold or interfere somehow, at least a little.
The play either works and Gronk catches it, or, more likely it doesn’t and the on-field ref doesn’t call a penalty because guys such as Gronk are almost always interfered with but rarely get the call. No matter. Belichick throws the review flag, and with 15 camera angles and slow motion replay, it’s apparent there was contact more than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage.
First down, New England.
That’s how the game could suddenly be played if pass interference or holding or other currently non-reviewable judgement calls were able to be challenged.
“Of course,”said Nate Burleson, who played 11 seasons as an NFL wide receiver and currently works for CBS and the NFL Network. “It’s all strategy at this point and if you have a challenge flag that can apply to anything, you are going [to] toss it out there. Someone else said they’d just toss it out there hoping. ‘Look at the replay. There’s a hold out there somewhere.’ ”
“They can do anything and then you can say, ‘Hey, there was pass interference,’ ” agreed Boomer Esiason, the longtime NFL quarterback and now CBS broadcaster.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will hold his annual Super Bowl news conference here in Atlanta Wednesday and one of the lines of questioning from the media is sure to be that blown pass interference call in the NFC title game.
The league has privately told the New Orleans Saints that a flag should have been thrown on the play. They fined Los Angeles defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman for committing helmet-to-helmet contact on the play, which was a second missed violation and thus admits interference.
There is no denying it was a terrible non-call and the league has dealt with a fury of fan complaints, grandstanding politicians, frivolous lawsuits and even a billboard campaign around Atlanta mocking them.
Goodell has publicly remained quiet on the topic, so what he says Wednesday will be interesting although it will do nothing to change the result of the game. Super Bowl LIII is L.A. vs. New England. That’s reality.
Yet as myriad proposals circulate about making pass interference and other judgement calls reviewable, the league has to consider the unexpected results of such an action.
“There certainly would be an unintended consequence,” said longtime NFL place kicker Jay Feely. “I always say, you can go back to every play in NFL history and find tons of missed calls.”
Exactly. And then it becomes the job of a replay official to judge intent of content, not just a field ref in the heat of the play. A call one way or the other that might upset fans now, would enrage them if they think it’s done in the calm of a replay booth. Judgement calls require judgement that is not universal the way getting two feet in bounds on a catch might be.
“If you are going to do that you are going to judge intent,” said Gene Steratore, a 15-season NFL ref who now works for CBS. “And we want to take intent out of the game. … I think if we get into what level of restriction is enough for a foul or what you think is pass interference that I don’t, then I don’t think we would come to a 99.9 percent agreement on what is and isn’t. Your judgement might be a little different than mine.”
Or there is this: If coaches know they can challenge for pass interference, then end-of-game situations in particular are ripe for abuse. Consider the “Hail Mary,” which ends with something akin to an end-zone mosh pit. There is almost always pass interference or illegal contact on that play – by the defense, offense or both.
The refs usually let it go and see what happens. Video review would have to be more accountable.
So imagine a team trailing by two points has the ball on its own 20 with one second remaining. Currently, the game is almost certainly over. With reviewable interference though, it can trot out a Hail Mary, throw it to the other team’s 30-yard line and, if it gets batted down or picked, challenge the play and hope for a call.
With a spot foul, the ball is suddenly in field-goal range for the win. The NFL becomes last-man-with-the-ball.
“How specific are you going to be?” Feely asked.
All this to correct a play that, while egregious, is an outlier, not the norm.
“What happened was unfortunate but it doesn’t happen often,” Steratore said. “I’d hate to see us overreact to one play.”
That’s what Roger Goodell needs to guard against – unwittingly giving smart coaches a brand new, and potentially unstoppable, late-game advantage that will change how NFL games are planned and played.
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