PHOENIX — Just before 5 p.m. local time, Sean Payton emerged from a conference room at the Arizona Biltmore grinning, with Saints owner Gayle Benson by his side. A few minutes later, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin gave Payton a celebratory slap on the behind as he walked past.
Two months after a missed pass interference call against Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman in the NFC Championship Game played a part in the Saints missing Super Bowl LIII, the NFL passed a rule change to prevent another game-altering mistake like this one from happening again. It was a victory for Payton and his head-coaching peers, who led the charge to get a solution passed at this week’s league meetings, despite the fact that expanding replay has long been a non-starter for many owners around the league.
In the end, the NFL’s 32 clubs voted quickly and nearly unanimously—the Bengals were the only team to vote no—to make offensive and defensive pass interference reviewable, on a one-year trial basis. Coaches will be able to challenge pass interference that is called or not called in the first 28 minutes of each half; inside the two-minute warning, the replay assistant upstairs will handle the review, as is the case for other reviewable calls.
The final rule change that was approved was dubbed “6c,” the fourth iteration proposed by the competition committee to expand instant replay. Other versions included making PI calls reviewable; making PI, roughing the passer and contact on a defenseless player reviewable; and making PI calls and non-calls reviewable, without the provision that the replay assistant takes over inside the two-minute warning.
It was something of a surprising conclusion, given the fact over the past two days frustration and confusion swirled through the Biltmore. Head of officiating Al Riveron came out of a meeting with head coaches on Monday with a head of steam; the competition committee had extra pow-wows both Monday evening and during lunch Tuesday afternoon; and head coaches skipped their planned Tuesday afternoon golf outing to ensure the final vote passed.
“It felt like we had to go around the block twice and then we arrived at the right address,” Payton said at the start of his victory lap.
Obviously, the win Payton wanted was the one in late January. But since then—after his self-indulgent ice cream and Netflix binge—he has led the charge to prevent egregious mistakes like the one that hurt his team from happening again in the future, leading up to Tuesday night’s decision. Payton had help from Tomlin, the other head coach on the competition committee. And when all 32 teams converged in Phoenix for the annual league meetings, the full body of head coaches came together to make sure a change got approved.
Last Friday, Falcons president Rich McKay, the chair of the competition committee, said that the idea of a sky judge—an eighth official who would sit upstairs in a booth and use replay to correct obvious officiating mistakes on the field—had “no support” from any committee member. But most coaches wanted a mechanism like the sky judge, frustrated by the fact that fans at home watching replay angles on the TV broadcast had more information about what calls were right or wrong than the officials making the calls on the field.
On Monday afternoon, a meeting of the league’s head coaches ran some 90 minutes long, with the 32 coaches in the room determined to hash out a solution to what they saw as a fixable problem. They were intent on their voice being heard and not leaving Phoenix without at least a first step toward more accurate officiating, voting 32-0 in that meeting to present a proposal to expand the responsibilities of the replay official upstairs to correct egregious calls such as PI and roughing the passer. The competition committee added proposal 6b—the first to address non-calls—on Monday evening, and then finally the successful 6c proposal, a compromise that combined the best of all ideas.
The number of times PI will be reviewed per game is automatically limited by the coaches’ challenge system, which gives each head coach two challenges per game, and a third if they win the first two. And putting PI reviews in the hands of the replay assistant within two minutes prevents coaches from throwing challenge flags on Hail Mary passes at the end of the half of the game.
This is just a start, and as Payton said, “there are obviously some calls it doesn’t address.” But the NFL presented analytics that showed 25 of the 50 most impactful penalties called in 2018 were defensive pass interference, McKay told The MMQB's Albert Breer. Player safety calls, like roughing the passer and helmet-to-helmet contact, would be among the next to be considered for further expansion of replay. The idea that one kind of judgment call is now reviewable is significant, as is the idea that an incorrect non-call on the field can now be corrected. This may open up the door to even more changes in the future.
“The group felt like, let’s put our feet in front of us here, and obviously down the road, if we feel it’s necessary, to look at the expansion of this,” Payton said.
An hour later, Payton circled through the lobby again, this time with a drink in hand.
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