The NFL won’t be popular in New Orleans this week. (Not that Roger Goodell could get a table at Emeril’s now anyway.) But during a meeting of NFL coaches and GMs here late Sunday afternoon, a show of hands was asked for. How many teams favored a new rule that would allow challenges of penalties not called on the field such as pass interference? That rules tweak, of course, would be to remedy the defensive pass interference call not made late in the NFC title game that helped propel the Rams, instead of the Saints, to the Super Bowl.
Less than eight hands went up. At least 24 teams would have to vote in favor of the rule for it to become law in the NFL.
“Clearly, there are factions of the membership who say, ‘Where does it end? With every foul or non-foul reviewable?” NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent told me Sunday night.
The rules change that will have a far better chance when Tuesday’s vote is taken: one that would make offensive and defensive pass-interference calls—flagged on the field—subject to review. That will do nothing to address the Saints’ gripe from the title game. I got two views of the prospects of that proposal at the hotel Sunday: Some on the Competition Committee are optimistic that the proposal to challenge interference calls on the field for a one-year trial will get 24 votes. “I’m not so sure of that,” said one other member of the committee. “I think it’s going to be very close. It might need some arm-twisting.”
“There’s just not enough support for reviewing interference not called on the field,” said Competition Committee member John Mara. “So let’s just take what we can get, work on training the officials better, work on having the same crew together in the playoffs [instead of all-star crews comprised of officials unfamiliar with each other] and attack it that way.”
“We need to make progress,” Vincent said. “It’s a progression, maybe over time.”
If that measure passes—rules proposal 6 on the league’s agenda here, allowing a one-year experiment with interference calls able to be challenged—it would leave non-calls like the one in the Saints game unaffected. The committee, and by extension the league, is going to be questioned harshly if that happens.
“This is a democratic process,” Vincent said. “This is something that the 32 teams dictate by their votes. I’ve been on record as saying that it will not be in the best interests of the league if we leave Arizona without a new rule about [interference] in place. We shouldn’t push it off till the meetings in May. I believe we need to be voting with the coaches in the room.”
Vincent was referring to the possibility of tabling the pass-interference-review proposal until the league’s annual May meetings, this year in Key Biscayne, Fla. But it clearly is an option. The NFL, which clearly wants some change, could take a straw vote during Tuesday’s debate, and if it feels the measure would fail to get 24 votes, the league could table it for two months, hoping to convince some skeptical owners to change their minds in a meeting that is traditionally not attended by the coaches.
A couple of things I’ve heard here: Multiple teams feel replay is far too intrusive on the game, and they are leaning against voting for an expansion of the system, at all. And some teams fear the unintended consequences of allowing challenges of plays on the field that went un-flagged.
Example: the Miami Miracle play, the one that allowed Kenyon Drake to take a lateral and weave through the New England defense for the winning touchdown in the dying seconds of a 2018 game. Suppose a rule was on the books that allowed New England to review the play, and suppose the Patriots had one or more video-review spotters in the press box who is doing nothing but studying every one of the 11 foes on every play to see if a foul had been committed. Then, if the Patriots challenged holding on a Miami player away from the play, and it was determined that there was a hold on the play, even if it had nothing to do with the outcome of the play, the review just might negate the touchdown. Is that the game fans want?
It’s true that the Saints’ play won’t be fixed here, and I have struggled with that. How can the league say it’s doing everything to make the game fair without addressing the rule that might have sent the wrong team to the Super Bowl?
My only idea to address everyone’s concerns: Allow teams to challenge all pass-interference calls on the field, or interference calls they think should have been made. Interference only. Mandate no increase in the number of challenges; most coaches would likely save a challenge for the last five minutes of the game, and the games wouldn’t likely be appreciably longer. This would allow teams to challenge bad interference calls.
“So many interference calls are close,” said the Giants’ Mara. “During the process, we were shown the pass-interference flags from this season, and we [on the eight-man Competition Committee] were asked to vote on them and whether they were fouls. On many of them, we voted 4-4.”
Vincent took three pages out of his binder for these meetings Sunday night. They concerned penalties not called from 2016 to 2018 that the league office deemed errors, and then calls made incorrectly in the same three seasons. Some 24 of the 50 incorrect calls were defensive pass interference penalties. You can bet he’ll use that power-point sheet to try to convince the teams on the fence about replay expansion to vote yes. We could have corrected 24 obvious incorrect calls in the last three years, he’s likely to say. And the nay-sayers will counter: How much more replay? Why more replay?
Should be an interesting debate here. There will be time for Goodell and Vincent to lobby skeptical teams during today’s sessions, and again tonight when the league has a cocktail party attended by everyone here. The one thing I’ve seen over the years is when the league really wants something, it pushes hard to get it. My money’s on the league winning, either Tuesday here or in Florida in May.