It is not clear at this point whether the replay-for-interference system, ratified by owners last March at the urging of coaches in the aftermath of the missed pass interference call in the NFC title game that sent the Los Angeles Rams rather than the New Orleans Saints to the Super Bowl, will be renewed this offseason. The owners approved the new replay system, which was passed over the reservations of the NFL’s rulemaking competition committee, on a one-year trial basis.
But before the owners make their decision at the annual league meeting in March on whether to keep the new system in place, they could have potential tweaks to consider.
“It’s the standard [for a replay reversal], the process, the mechanics,” said one person familiar with the league’s inner workings. “We need to look at all of it and see if there are things we should consider changing …. The numbers demonstrate themselves. The coaches and [owners], we have to examine it and ask where we landed.”
Coaches regularly have complained this season about the lack of interference-related calls on the field being reversed via replay review by the NFL’s officiating department in New York.
“Did it meet the expectation of [the teams]? I would say no,” said the person with knowledge of the NFL’s inner workings, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal deliberations on the matter.
Through last Sunday’s games, there had been 15 replay reversals among 77 interference-related reviews conducted this season. That’s a reversal rate of 19.5 percent. There had been 12 reversals among 51 reviews conducted when pass interference was not called by the on-field officials. There had been only three reversals among 26 reviews conducted when interference was called on the field by the officials.
The new rule puts interference-related reviews under the purview of the replay official in the final two minutes of each half. In the first 28 minutes of each half, such reviews are initiated by a coach’s challenge. Coaches’ challenges had resulted in eight reversals among 64 interference-related replay reviews through last Sunday’s games.
Those numbers don’t seem to trouble those in charge of overseeing the system. The new rule was enacted, after all, to fix only the most egregious officiating gaffes related to pass interference, as when the on-field officials failed to call interference against the Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman for plowing into the Saints’ Tommylee Lewis late in regulation in the NFC championship game in January in New Orleans. The new rule allows for reviews of both interference calls and non-calls.
What appears to concern league leaders is that a handful of obvious officiating blunders, in their view, have not been rectified. That includes a recent interference non-call against the Ravens’ Marlon Humphrey in the end zone against the Houston Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins during a game in Baltimore. Texans Coach Bill O’Brien challenged but the interference non-call was allowed to stand, to the bewilderment of many observers.
“I have no idea what pass interference is any more,” O’Brien said after that game, a 41-7 triumph by the Ravens on Nov. 17.
League leaders believe that such replay mistakes undermine the credibility of the system, according to those familiar with the deliberations. The Hopkins play and a few others, in their view, are what the new system should address. So while the standard to reverse an on-field call should be high and there should be relatively few reversals, to them, they realize that the obvious mistakes must be caught and they acknowledge that’s not necessarily happening this season.
That’s a shift from the approach taken by league leaders and rulemakers earlier in the season, when they felt it was the coaches’ responsibility to adjust to how the replay rulings were being made. The view has changed as the season has progressed. The evidence has mounted and the complaints have increased. The question the NFL now faces is whether these are growing pains for a new system that can be tweaked and salvaged, or problems that cannot be fixed within a rule that must be scrapped.
The NFL is likely to examine the wording of the rule, the standard for reversals and the role of Al Riveron, the league’s senior vice president of officiating. Riveron’s rulings have drawn scrutiny by players, coaches and fans. Saints Coach Sean Payton, a member of the competition committee, has suggested publicly that the interference-related replay rulings be made by a committee of trained observers. Last offseason, coaches suggested that each game have a “sky judge,” an official stationed in the press box to monitor replays and overturn obvious officiating errors.
If there is a change in wording to the rule, the league would hope it would work as well as when it modified the sport’s controversial and complex catch rule before the 2018 season, taking a more straightforward, common-sense approach that has resulted in far less consternation about what’s a catch and what isn’t.
But in this case, the fix might not be so simple. All along, the competition committee had qualms about making a judgment call like pass interference subject to instant replay scrutiny. Those reservations were shoved aside when coaches pushed hard for the new replay system in the wake of the Saints-Rams officiating debacle. Owners voted, 31-1, in favor of the replay change. Any rule change requires approval of at least 24 of the 32 teams, and the next step is unclear.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” a high-ranking official with one NFL team said.