Two months after the officiating debacle in the NFC title game in New Orleans sent the Los Angeles Rams rather than the Saints to the Super Bowl and took some of the luster off an until-then-shiny 2018 NFL season, the league’s rulemaking body has decided how it would address that gaffe via modification of instant replay.
And, curiously, the replay proposal made by the NFL’s competition committee would not have fixed the gaffe made by the officials in the Superdome.
The committee’s proposal, completed during deliberations this week and announced Thursday night, would make pass interference, roughing the passer and illegal hits on defenseless players subject to review by replay — but only in those instances in which a penalty already has been called by the on-field officials.
So if that proposal is ratified by owners of the 32 NFL teams and put into effect, replay could wipe out an erroneous interference call made by an official. But it could not assess a pass interference penalty on a mistaken non-call, such as the egregiously mistaken non-call on the blatant interference penalty (and illegal hit) by the Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman on the Saints’ Tommylee Lewis late in regulation during the NFC championship game.
League leaders said Friday that there remains opposition to allowing instant replay to call a penalty that was not flagged by the on-field officials, and that opinions within the league on the role of instant replay as an officiating tool vary widely.
“They are always sharply divided,” Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee, said Friday. “People have very passionate views on replay and how replay affects the game.”
Given those circumstances, the proposal made by the competition committee perhaps represented the beginning of the process rather than the conclusion of it. Owners meet Sunday to Wednesday in Phoenix at the annual league meeting. Coaches and general managers also are to be in attendance. Any rule-change proposal requires 24 votes among the 32 teams to be ratified.
“Where do you start?” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, asked during a conference call with reporters. “What can you put on the floor that may get 24 votes?”
Owners also will have a series of replay-related proposals made by individual NFL teams to peruse in Phoenix. One of them, made by the Washington Redskins, would make every call and every non-call made during a game subject to potential replay review under the coaches’ challenge system.
The owners generally prefer proposals made by the competition committee to those made by teams. But the wishes of the competition committee are not binding; owners can do what they want, as long as the votes are there. The league’s helmet-hitting rule, barring a player from lowering his head and using his helmet to initiate contact with an opponent, came together during the league meeting last March, without advance notice. At this meeting, the replay discussions could go in whichever direction the owners want them to go.
With one caveat.
“We know how tough replay is,” McKay said, “to get 24 votes.”
So maybe there will be an overhaul of replay in reaction to the Saints-Rams officiating travesty. After all, the entire point of instant replay is to eliminate the obvious officiating mistake that single-handedly determines the outcome of a game. In this instance, an officiating mistake as obvious as they come determined not only the outcome of a game, but a Super Bowl spot.
Or maybe the NFL will dither, putting off a change that seems inevitable. For years, the NFL said it would be too problematic to change its flawed tuck rule. And then suddenly, it scrapped the tuck rule and has been better off for it. Similarly, for years the NFL said it couldn’t find a better alternative to its confounding catch rule. And then, abruptly, it switched last year to a common-sense approach to the catch rule, and no one spent this past season wondering, “What’s a catch?” in the NFL. Perhaps modifying replay will follow a similarly long and meandering path, with more controversy to come before meaningful change is made.
It all depends on what owners say behind closed doors in the coming days at a Phoenix resort.
“Replay is difficult,” McKay said Friday, “and we welcome the discussion …. We’ll be interested to see where the membership is.”
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