Over breakfast at the league meetings, John Harbaugh stumped for a rule change that would allow coaches to challenge plays that millions of fans are immediately second-guessing at home. What’s the downside to reviewing player safety calls and getting them right?

By Peter King
March 22, 2016

BOCA RATON, Fla. — John Harbaugh was a man on a mission Tuesday morning at the annual NFL meetings. He was out to sell the Ravens’ expanded-replay plan that faces a tough road for passage, and, as usual, Harbaugh was strong on opinions. In fact, this column could basically be written with his words alone.

The Baltimore proposal, to be discussed by team officials at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, calls for the league to expand replay challenges for coaches from two to three per game, with “safety plays”—those involving helmet-to-helmet hits, unnecessary roughness, or violations of the defenseless-receiver rule—to be reviewable. As for the extra time required to adjudicate what the public would think would be a landslide of replay challenges? “That’s a red herring,” Harbaugh said at the AFC coaches breakfast. The challenges, he said, could be easily swallowed up as part of the 18 in-game commercial breaks per game.

“Safety should be in replay,” Harbaugh said. “The fact that safety is not in replay right now just makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. If we are talking about a full-speed shot and the official has to decide right in the moment: Did he get hit in the head or not? And he doesn’t want to make a mistake—he doesn’t want to flag that 15 yards, because that is going to alter the game—he may not throw that flag. But if he knows he is protected by replay, and he thinks there was a helmet-neck-area contact, he’ll throw the flag, and then if you see it on the replay, Oooh, he didn’t get him in the head, we’ll throw the red flag and we’ll get it right. That’s the whole point. To me, that protects the players even more.”

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But does it have any chance of passing? (I’m told it’s unlikely.)

“Oh, it will pass eventually,” Harbaugh said. “There is no question that [expanded] replay is going to pass eventually. It is not 1999 when we put replay in. Everybody is watching the game through their smartphones now. The fans live in replay. The fans are officiating the game in replay. The fans have a better look of the game than the official does. Why aren’t we giving officials and coaches that same view? Everybody can understand this rule. It is real simple. It is safer for the players and secondly, it allows us to get it right. There were five games last year that were determined by non-reviewable calls that determined the outcome of the game. The fans don’t understand that. They don’t want to look at that all week, that the official made a mistake that the fans can see in real time that the league said, ‘It’s not reviewable. We can’t fix that.’

“What do you mean we can’t fix it? We can’t fix it because we decide not to be able to fix it. If we can fix it, just fix it. Make it reviewable.”

Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Now Harbaugh’s Earl Gray was getting cold, but he didn’t care. “We are going to add one or two more reviewable things this year, then another couple next year, now it’s 33, then it’s going to be 36, then 41 and then 50 things that are reviewable. It is either going to be done now or it is going to be done soon.”

That’s my pet peeve with how rules get tweaked in the NFL. It takes two or three or four years to fix things that seem so obvious. Look at the PAT rule, moving the line of scrimmage from for extra points from the 2- to the 15-yard line. That took a few years from the time it was first seriously considered to passage; last year it passed for one year only. And back on the ballot this year, it will sail through as a permanent rule. Why? Because it was a commonsense rule change that made a wasteful, automatic play a more competitive play.

Common sense applies here too. Who would argue that bang-bang hits across the middle, when it’s so hard to distinguish between an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit or a legal helmet-to-shoulder-pads hat, isn’t worth taking a second look?

With the increasing emphasis on rules to make the game safer, this is a slam dunk. The same people who beg for more protection for players on such hits should speak up now in support of the Ravens’ proposal—because, as Harbaugh says, it’s a matter of time before it’s included in reviewable calls. Maybe a tweak would be to not expand challenges to three. But the overriding intent of the Baltimore proposal is a smart one.

“We already [review] catches, score/no score, whatever is black and white,” Harbaugh said. “Those are all judgment calls in real time, but when they go to replay they become not judgment calls.”

Smart idea. I fear that it’s not two or three years down the road, and that’s just wrong.

* * *

The three veteran AFC North coaches all weighed in on what the spate of new rules and emphasis on safety has done to the game. I asked Harbaugh, Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh and Marvin Lewis of Cincinnati—each has been with his team for at least nine seasons—if it’s becoming somehow more problematic to coach the game.

Tomlin: “It is becoming increasingly difficult, but I think that that is the job of coaching and it has probably always been the job of coaching, to evolve as the game evolves. We adjust, we adapt, we emphasize different things based on the present playing rules. I just think that is one of the challenges of our vocation and it is something that I know I embrace and it is something that we should all embrace, to continue to evolve as the game does, because it is an adapt-or-die principle. The goal of the [new unsportsmanlike-conduct] rule is obviously not to eject people from the game; the goal is to change behavior. And like coaches, players adapt and I assume that they quickly will. Just think about our culture and how much it has changed in the last 10 years or so. It used to be ‘Jacked Up’ was on at halftime on Monday Night Football. I embrace the change. I think if you’re committed to be in this thing for an extended period of time, you better have an attitude that is centered around evolving with the game of football.”

Lewis: “We’re reaching out to help train coaches at the high school and youth levels in some of the proper techniques. People talk about what the Ivy League did [in eliminating in-season tackling during practices]—we don’t tackle in practice either. When I was taught to play football, the head wasn’t a part it. The head wasn’t used in tackling. Then the [technology of the] helmet improved so much that players became like human spears; guys thought they were immune to injury. Sports on TV created the big hit. But look at NFL players today. They’re learning.”

Harbaugh: “It is not a problem at all. Good, clean, tough football has been around since the beginning of football and the rules have been amended and changed as the players have gotten bigger and better, and I know the league is doing a great job. Our division is a rough, tough division, every team in our division plays physical football, but the league is like that.”

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