Revised pass interference rules still could end up being a mess

Mike Florio
ProFootball Talk on NBC Sports

The NFL’s effort to prevent a repeat of the Rams-Saints uncalled pass interference fiasco has resulted in a long journey for Milan to Minsk that, at last check, seemed encouraging.

To summarize, automatic replay review will be initiated for pass interference only when the replay official spots, while looking at the play in real time or while screening full-speed reviews, clear and obvious calls or non-calls of offensive or defensive pass interference. It sounds good in theory. In practice, there’s still a chance it will become a mess.

And evidence has now emerged as to how it can become a mess.

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Via the Kansas City Star, Mike Giardi of NFL Media has shared via Twitter a key play from the Week 15 Chargers-Chiefs Thursday night thriller that NFL senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron cited at an NFL Media Summit as an example of the application of the new rule allowing pass interference calls and non-calls to be reviewed.

Officials on the field ruled with less than 10 seconds on the clock that Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller had interfered with Chargers receiver Mike Williams, giving the Chargers the ball at the Chiefs’ one yard line, automatic first and goal. Riveron, according to Giardi, explained that automatic replay review would have resulted in a finding that Fuller had committed defensive pass interference and that Williams had committed offensive pass interference, resulting in offsetting penalties and a do-over of the third and goal play from the Kansas City 10, with only eight seconds left in a game where the Chargers trailed by seven points.

So here’s the real question. Would the replay official have concluded based on the real-time play and full-speed replay review that the officials clearly and obviously missed Williams shoving Fuller away, as Fuller was interfering with Williams?

Maybe the replay official would have seen it, maybe the replay official wouldn’t have seen it. The replay official and the replay assistant will have to make those decisions quickly, and the video doesn’t reveal the same kind of undeniable blunder that was committed when officials in the NFC title game failed to see Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman blast Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived.

There’s a fine line between what is and isn’t clear and obvious, and 17 different replay officials may have 17 different standards for deciding in a compressed time frame when to initiate automatic review based on the full-speed-only replays that will be available to the replay officials. In a Rams-Saints situation, 17 out of 17 replay officials will (or at least should) activate Riveron’s remote review of the play from league headquarters in New York. But, in the Chiefs-Chargers case, would 17 of 17 find sufficiently clear and obvious evidence of offensive pass interference to engage a formal review?

Possibly. Possibly not. The problem is that there will be some situations where a replay official hits the proverbial button based on the full-speed replay, and some situations where the replay official decides not to bog down the final moments of a game with a formal review by Riveron.

Think of what the replay official will be processing in situations where “clear and obvious” may not be as “clear and obvious” as it was when Robey-Coleman struck Lewis prematurely. In the Fuller-Williams scenario, the replay official will be looking at whether the ruling of defensive pass interference was clearly and obviously wrong while also looking at whether the failure to call offensive pass interference was clearly and obviously wrong. When in doubt, will the replay official call for a full review? Or, when in doubt, will the replay official conclude that the presence of said doubt means that the evidence of an error necessarily isn’t clear and obvious?

The fact that Riveron is openly sharing the Chargers-Chiefs play as a matter-of-fact example of a call of defensive pass interference becoming a replay-reversed ruling of offsetting fouls suggests that, frankly, he possibly doesn’t appreciate this nuance. If that’s the case, the end result could be that too many late-game passing plays will end up being scrutinized by Riveron for clear and obvious errors, causing games to be slowed down for careful analysis of something far less clear and obvious than what happened in New Orleans.

Thus, although the ostensible end result of a multi-month sausage grinding makes sense on the surface, Riveron’s review of this play from the Chiefs-Chargers contest suggests that, despite the safeguard that the Competition Committee has crafted to prevent excessive late-game replay reviews, there could still be too many of them — because the replay official may be expected to call for a full review under circumstances where the evidence isn’t nearly as clear and obvious as it was when Robey-Coleman clearly and obviously flattened Lewis before the ball had arrived.

With the days winding down until the start of the regular season, the Competition Committee, Riveron, the Commissioner, and the owners need to be sure that everyone is on the same page regarding what this new procedure means and, more importantly, how it will be consistently and reliably applied in order to balance a desire to keep games moving while also ironing out clear and obvious mistakes.

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