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Owners meeting Snaps: NFL still hesitant to update reviewable plays

At the NFL owners meeting, the league’s competition committee tabled a vote on whether or not to expand the number of reviewable plays, which is some progress, but not enough, according to Don Banks.

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• A classic bit of NFL logic: the league decided to delay the decision on whether or not to expand the list of plays that are eligible to be reviewed by instant replay, amid fears that such a move might lead to additional delays in games.

The NFL’s competition committee opted to table the Baltimore Ravens’ proposal, with the intent to study the issue for two months and then make a proposal for either a re-writing of the replay rules or possibly as part of a significant expansion of the replay system at the May owners meetings in Charlotte.

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Usually, when the NFL tables a rules proposal, it’s an almost-certain sign that it was nowhere close to gaining passage, and might just fade away and drop off the league’s radar. But in this case, the NFL seems intent on considering how to replace the current list of reviewable plays with a list of non-reviewable plays—which include judgment calls like holding and pass interference—thereby increasing the scope of replay, for which most coaches are in favor.

“We think there’s some merit to the proposal and we think it’s something we want to work on,” said Rich McKay, competition committee chairman and the Atlanta Falcons team president. “The basis of the proposal is a rewrite of the rule and kind of almost taking us back to a simpler way to look at the rule. One of the things about instant replay, over the years, since we put this in in ’98, is we’ve continued to add plays to the reviewable list and really have made it, to some people’s point, confusing and certainly long.

“One thing Baltimore did with its proposal is they made it much more simplistic, of what is not allowed to be reviewed. And we’re going to look at that, we’re going to meet as a committee, we’re going to talk to the membership, and we’re going to look at trying to submit a proposal off of Baltimore’s that re-writes the rule and re-writes the language and submit that in May for a vote.”

The NFL has always been hesitant to add to the length of games in terms of time, which additional replay reviews might do. But the league is also trying to best utilize the available technology, and give game officials the quickest way to see replays, allowing them to make the correct on-field ruling.

While the path to the necessary 24 votes needed for the expansion of replay is still an uphill climb, league sources say there’s momentum to seriously consider a step that coaches such as New England’s Bill Belichick and Baltimore’s John Harbaugh have been calling for in recent years.

“There’s a split opinion on the need to expand it at all,” said John Mara, New York Giants co-owner and competition committee member. “Most of the coaches want as much review as possible and there are a number of other people who maybe don’t feel that way. We’re going to try and re-write the rules to make it a little more understandable and discuss whether or not to expand it. I can’t say we’re close to any [consensus], but hopefully by May we’ll try to get there.”

It’s progress, some coaches say, that the NFL is even open to the idea of expanding the list of reviewable plays, a topic that gained little or no traction among the team owners in recent years.

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“I’m not hopeful for expansion just to expand, I’m hopeful that we figure out better ways to make replay work,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said at the NFC coaches media breakfast Wednesday. “We just need to make it better. Every year we talk about some stuff, but we’re trying to get better and I think what John [Harbaugh] is throwing out with the Ravens proposal is a really good approach. It’s really intriguing. I don’t know that we have it nailed yet.”

If the NFL simply swaps out the list of plays that currently can be reviewed with a list of plays that are not reviewable, the effect will be only semantical and organizationally, and certainly not placate the faction of coaches that want to expand the system to all but the plays that represent the toughest judgment calls.

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So the real story will be told in May, once the competition committee submits its proposal, based on its further study of the issue. Cowboys team president Stephen Jones, who is also on the competition committee, did not sound optimistic that enough support for expansion will exist even then.

“I don’t know that it’ll be necessarily an expansion in its truest sense,” Jones said. “I think it may just be a rewriting of the rules. I think people are open to looking at it in a different way and instead of writing everything you can review, let’s go the other way and say here’s what can’t be reviewed. It may be cleaner to write it that way. But I can’t say in any way that it has a passable feeling right now or that there’s enough people that want to expand it.”

• The NFL is poised to play a regular-season game in China in 2018, and the newly relocated Los Angeles Rams will be the home team for that game. The flight from L.A. to Beijing is 12 hours and 40 minutes, but what kind of trip will the visiting team face? Memo to the NFL: Don’t bother asking the New York Giants to be the Rams’ opponent.

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“I’m sure not going to [volunteer the Giants],” Mara said. “That’s a tough trip. I don’t know how you do that. You’d have to give the team a week off afterwards, but even the week before, it’s a pretty tough trip. We’re years away from having to worry about that.”

Well, not really. Unless Mara meant two years. When told the Rams were locked in as the home team, Mara laughed and added: “God bless ’em, if that’s the case.”

Based on the NFL’s scheduling formula, teams that could potentially face the Rams in China in 2018 include Green Bay, Minnesota, Kansas City, San Diego, Arizona, San Francisco and some undetermined NFC East team.

For the Rams, China wouldn’t even rate as the strangest place a Jeff Fisher-coached team has played. Let’s not forget about that season the freshly relocated Tennessee Oilers spent in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis in 1997.

• ​KING: How reviewing player safety calls can improve NFL

• When all was said and done, the NFL’s automatic ejection rule for players or coaches who draw two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the same game strikes me as much ado about practically nothing. The league is only putting the rule in on a one-year trial basis, and whittled down the list of potential ejectable fouls to a fairly narrow scope.

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Let’s be honest: This rule got passed because commissioner Roger Goodell came out in favor of increased penalties for poor sportsmanship at the Super Bowl, and left the competition committee to come up with a measure that would at least appear to address the issue. But all of two players would have faced ejection for the double unsportsmanlike conduct calls during the 2015 season, and that list doesn’t include Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Carolina cornerback Josh Norman, who brawled all day last December at MetLife Stadium, without being tossed.

“We’ve had points of emphasis [on sportsmanship] in the past,” Goodell said. “They needed teeth. The opportunity for rules to reflect the emphasis everyone in the membership feels is important. Sportsmanship is important to us.’’

If the new rule represents “teeth,” they’re baby teeth. At best. I’m with 49ers coach Chip Kelly, who believes the rule is unnecessary, given that officials have the right to eject players based on one flagrant incident. 

“You ever see A Few Good Men?” Kelly asked at breakfast Wednesday. “Why the two orders? Right? If you already have the ability to throw them out of the game, why do we have to put a second order in to throw them out of the game? Throw them out of the game. If they’re not playing the right way, and we already have the ability to eject them, why do we have to put another order in?”

Obviously the league can’t handle that truth.

• The NFL split the baby in half again this week by making the new touchback rule just a one-year experiment—the league will vote again in 2017 on whether or not to make the rule permanent. By putting the ball at the 25-yard line—rather than the 20—on touchbacks, the league is again hoping to lessen the number of kickoff returns, but many are wary that it will have the complete opposite effect, and I tend to agree. The thought is teams will now be tempted to opt for either a pooch or mortar kickoff, trying to pin a return man inside the 25.

The NFL continues to try and mitigate the kickoff because it views it as the most dangerous play in the game. But such half measures on the player safety front probably won’t be seen as all that wise if the league’s newest tweak to kickoffs results in increasing the frequency of contact and subsequent injury.

Ultimately if the kickoff is deemed too dangerous, the NFL needs to get rid of it instead of taking halfway steps that may or may not decrease its danger.