The proposed rule changes NFL clubs will vote on at next week’s league meetings would not be able to correct mistakes like the one that happened in the NFC Championship Game, the egregious pass interference non-call involving Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman. But, with criticism over officiating mistakes dampening one of the biggest weekends last football season, and dominating coverage during the lead-up to the Super Bowl, the NFL is motivated to make some kind of change to reduce game-changing errors.
The NFL’s competition committee has proposed expanding the use of instant replay for the 2019 season on a one-year trial basis. One proposal would add pass interference to the list of reviewable plays; a second, broader proposal would make PI, roughing the passer and unnecessary contact on a defenseless player all reviewable fouls.
Troy Vincent, the NFL’s top football operations executive, called this “the best start for possible solutions,” but in order to be instituted, these proposals would need to receive yes votes from 24 of the 32 clubs at next week’s league meetings in Phoenix.
“We know how tough replay is to get 24 votes for a league that from 1992 to 98 didn’t have replay,” added Falcons president Rich McKay, the chair of the competition committee. “We welcome the discussion, and we feel like this is a good way to expand it. We have data that shows these are the most impactful plays, and the ones we can change.”
According to NFL.com, 24 of the 50 most impactful incorrect calls from 2016-18 were defensive pass interference. Offensive pass interference is also the most common non-call, though these proposals would not have a mechanism for correcting wrong non-calls. Though it was the non-call in the NFC Championship Game that has spurred reconsideration of ways to improve officials’ accuracy rates, Vincent said, “There’s been a real reluctance of putting a foul on the field. That is something from active players to coaches, all across football personnel.”
Leaving the combine earlier this month, members of the competition committee, which includes club owners, executives and head coaches, were instructed to study the possibility of adding a sky judge for 2019. That position would be an eighth member of the officiating crew who would sit upstairs in a booth and use video replay to correct clear and obvious officiating mistakes on the field, both calls and non-calls. But, McKay said, the sky judge had “no support from any committee member.”
(Notably, the Alliance of American Football—the new football league that has drawn plenty of media attention since beginning shortly after the Super Bowl—has adopted a sky judge for its inaugural season.)
Among the concerns teams had about the sky judge were who would serve in these positions, since they would have the authority to overrule the rest of the crew on the field, and how wide their discretion would be in terms of which fouls they could change, at what point in the game, etc.
The NFL has long been resistant to review of judgment calls like pass interference, and has drawn a hard line there, so there will likely be a heated debate in Phoenix. Within a few hours of a media conference call to discuss the proposed rule changes, the Steelers’ team reporter, Bob Labriola, quoted Steelers president Art Rooney II as saying that the team will go to the league meetings opposed to expanding replay. “I’m not really excited to have replay expanded, and we’ll approach it with that in mind,” Rooney said.
Raiders head coach Jon Gruden has been outspoken about his desire to eliminate replay from the game, and you'll find other coaches around the league who accept the human error involved with judgment calls and are opposed to measures that slow the game down. On the other hand, seven different clubs submitted proposals related to replay, including one that moved for all plays to be reviewable (something Bill Belichick has advocated for in the past) and the Rams’ proposal for personal fouls to be reviewable. That indicates that there are several teams who would vote to expand replay.
Among the other rule changes that will be discussed:
• Banning all blindside blocks, regardless of where contact is made to the player or in what location on the field.
• The Chiefs’ proposal to eliminate the overtime coin toss and guarantee both teams receive a possession. The Chiefs, as we all remember, lost the AFC Championship Game after the Patriots won the OT coin toss and scored a game-winning touchdown on their first possession. There does not seem to be much momentum for another change to the overtime rules. Vincent said since 2001, both teams touch the ball in 80 percent of games that go to overtime.
• The Broncos’ proposed alternative to the onside kick, which would give teams the option to try to convert a fourth-and-15 play from their own 35-yard-line in lieu of a kickoff, one time per game in the fourth quarter.
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