NFL coaches even swayed this skeptic in fight to change pass interference rule

Prior to the NFL owners meetings this week in Arizona, I was ready to skewer the league if it added offensive and defensive pass interference to its replay system.

Not just because games are already too long, but because there are 130-plus plays in a football game, which makes the notion that one or two missed calls can lose a team the contest somewhat disingenuous. On every snap, there are players who could have done their job better to either score or prevent points, and the same goes for coaches.

That includes the pied piper behind this “review PI!” movement, Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints. I can’t help but wonder if he is gleefully using the catalyst for it all — the now-infamous third-down non-call against Nickell Robey-Coleman in the NFC championship game in January— as a convenient front* for his failure to run the ball twice and set up a game-winning field goal as time expired.

*By the way, nothing that happened during the four days I spent at the meetings made me change my mind about Payton. If anything, the fact he arrived early to the 8:15 a.m. coaches-media breakfast on Tuesday and held court for nearly an hour stumping for the rule only solidified my belief he has successfully deflected criticism that would have otherwise come his way.

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton smiles before the NFL football NFC championship game against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Saints coach Sean Payton helped successfully lobby a major rule change for the 2019 season involving pass interference plays. (AP)

Yet, by the time the week was over — and the league’s 32 owners left in their cavalcade of oversized, dark-tinted SUVs — I’d shifted my thinking from “there’s no need to make pass interference reviewable” to “oh what the hell, let’s do it … this is gonna be more fun than I thought!”

And a big reason for the attitude shift was seeing the number of heavy hitters in the coaching ranks who stumped for the expansion of replay over the course of the week with Payton. We’re talking Bill Belichick. Andy Reid. Mike Tomlin. Jason Garrett. That’s over 60 years of head coaching experience, and they all wanted it. They fought for it and, after some wrangling with a group of owners who appeared to have some anti-replay sentiment, pushed through a proposal making all pass interference penalties reviewable, even non-calls.

The proposal is reasonable. For those worried about games going too long, coaches can do it a maximum of only twice per game. In the final two minutes of each half, those calls will be subject to a booth review. What’s more, the rule change is for only the 2019 season, which means the league can either tweak it or scrap it after the year if it’s a failure. And that’s a good thing because there’s a chance it could be.

Even though the league saved itself some headaches by putting pass interference reviews in the hands of the booth in the final two minutes of each half — thus reducing the ability for a coach whose team is on the wrong end of a critical interception or touchdown catch to challenge in hopes of a play-reversing Hail Mary — there are 56 other minutes of the game where that scenario can still apply.

If Belichick or Reid’s team surrenders a go-ahead touchdown catch with 2:40 left, why wouldn’t they challenge the play? In the balletic dance between receivers and cornerbacks, there is contact on every play. And now, referees will have to make a decision whether there’s enough contact to reverse the play. That’s a brutal judgment call to make, one that some referees will certainly get wrong over the course of the season.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick tosses the challenge flag during the first half of an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011. It was eventually ruled a touchdown by Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
It's probably safe to say Patriots coach Bill Belichick will have a handle on when to use his challenge flags over pass interference calls. (AP)

So those coaches who pushed hard for this rule change probably wanted it for a reason. And while some of them probably got behind it because it sounds like the right thing to do — after all, getting calls right should be a priority — I wonder if others did it because it can serve as another mechanism to separate the good from the middling.

You really think Belichick, a master planner by any measure, would push for this without having a strategy for accommodating it? If anything, the looming threat of a PI call could make an already-pass happy game even more so, a development that stands to benefit quick-strike passing attacks armed with fleet-footed, technical route-running wideouts (like New England!).

What’s more, while some supremely quick wideouts could become uncoverable, I also wonder if this rule will hurt the classic, big-body possession receiver, the guys who create separation by being physical at the top of their routes. Think of Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans. When those dudes make a big play, will they be at the mercy of yardage-reversing flag?

The change could go well and save the NFL the embarrassment of another Saints-Rams debacle, or it could go the other way and swing games as the smarter coaches figure out a way to weaponize it. If it’s the latter, I’m sure some coach who gets screwed during the season will pull a Payton-esque performance and stump loudly for another change at next year’s owners meetings.

For a year’s worth of intrigue, though, it’s worth the risk.

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