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How the 32 NFL Head Coaches Negotiated the Rule Change to Allow Review of Pass Interference

The NFL’s head coaches as a collective group felt passionately about pushing for a rule change to challenge pass interference calls—and the owners’ approval has a greater meaning than just the rule itself.

PHOENIX — On one hand, the last four days in the NFL owners meetings at the Arizona Biltmore represented a gigantic breakthrough for the NFL’s 32 head coaches.

On another, this was just a step.

Next season, the league will add offensive and defensive pass interference to its replay system, opening such plays to coaches challenges for 56 regulation minutes and to replay review for the final two minutes of each half of every game. And this rule was passed almost entirely because the NFL’s coaches wouldn’t quit on it. The group didn’t get everything they wanted, but they fought hard this week to get meaningful change—which has historically never been easy to pry from the clutches of their bosses, the NFL’s team owners.

“It was amazing,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said on his cell phone as he headed to dinner on Tuesday night. “And it wasn't anything that was choreographed. It wasn’t any political thing that was created. It was just natural, because the coaches want to help, and they're willing to take on the flag and do it themselves. There was a good idea and we just want to help the officiating and help the game be better.

“It was amazing to me that everybody saw it the same way, I thought it was really cool. … I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Harbaugh isn’t talking about the details here, because many voiced differing opinions on those. He’s talking about the overall unity of a group of 32 who hardly ever agree on anything, and a singular vision for it that followed—a priority on making sure the NFL did all it could to get every call right.

The result isn’t perfect. It’s a compromise, no question, and it wasn’t what the coaches wanted when they woke up Tuesday morning. But it also represented a show of strength from a group who has been steamrolled in arenas like this in the past.

When it was over, Atlanta’s Dan Quinn summed it up, telling me, “Just knowing we got better as a league and that collectively, we had a part in that, I think that’s badass.”

In this week’s Game Plan, I’ll answer your questions on the Giants’ quarterback situation, the Patriots’ issues at receiver, the Jaguars’ draft, whether the Raiders or Bengals will draft a quarterback, Cleveland’s direction, how the NFL will handle Robert Kraft and how the 2019 draft-eligible quarterbacks stack up with last year’s.

But we’re starting with the big rule change that came out of this week’s NFL owners meeting, and why it’s bigger than the rule itself. Historically the coaches have struggled to force change, but this time, the coaches asserted themselves and won. To fully understand why the coaches feel as they do, it’s important to understand where they are coming from.

At this meeting in 2010, coaches came in vocally questioning change to the overtime rules. So rather than working through it with the coaches, the owners waited until the coaches went on their golf outing, then voted that change through. The next year, the owners brokered a CBA compromise by sacrificing work hours the coaches had with players without consulting them. And the year after that, another labor fight, this one with the referees, compromised a chunk of regular season games.

Since then, change has come slowly. Two years ago, the coaches organized and empowered Harbaugh, Carolina’s Ron Rivera, Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis and New Orleans’s Sean Payton to speak up on the offseason rules. This year, the focus was on not only righting the wrong of the missed pass interference at the end of the NFC title game, but also making sure the game itself took precedent over business as major change loomed.

“It was for the betterment of the game,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “Everybody checked their egos at the door. And they all had a say, most of all. We were able to get everybody in a room, which very seldom happened before, but we’ve been able to do the last couple of years. We did it at the combine also. You get people in a room and you let them talk. There are a lot of smart guys in there.”

So the combine meeting happened, as did a meeting with the competition committee in Indianapolis, which clearly wasn’t enough as this week’s meetings approached. Over the weekend, competition committee chair Rich McKay told me there was very little chance of, or support for, a sky judge among owners, even though the head coaches I informally polled via text on Saturday night were 15–2 in favor of instituting one.

The coaches kept pushing. On Monday, their meeting, scheduled to run from 11 a.m. to noon, lasted until 1:30 p.m. Reid and Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the two most tenured guys in there, sitting next to each other, both addressed the group. The Chiefs coach forcefully told his peers, “Don’t be afraid to speak. We’re all in this together, just like the owners are.”

A few coaches told me that Belichick addressed Payton and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin—the two coaches on the competition committee—directly, saying, “You’re the two guys that matter to us. We want you to carry our thoughts, because you're the two that understand. You’re the two that have the challenge flags, you’re the two that deal with things that we have to deal with. Nobody else on that committee is really ever going to understand that, because they’re not in that position.”

The coaches eventually agreed on a proposal to vote on which would give the replay official oversight on all offensive/defensive pass interference penalties, as well defenseless player and roughing the passer fouls, creating, in effect, the sky judge they wanted.

Then, amongst the group, they voted. And all 32 voted yes.

The next morning, at 9:30 a.m., three proposals—6, 6a and 6b—were on the table as the owners and coaches met. Not one incorporated what the coaches proposed, even after the competition committee met again Monday night. So as you’d imagine, when that meeting broke, before noon on Tuesday, the coaches left hot, thinking that, again, they hadn’t been heard, with the conversation tabled until later in the day.

The silver lining was that Payton and Tomlin were still working.

“[Monday] was 32 guys agreeing in strong discussion, feeling like ‘hey, there’s a direction here,’” Payton told me. “And yet, it hadn’t even become an amendment yet. It was just really good conversation, well thought out discussion, relative to our game and some of our challenges. So then, man, you’re going back, and for Mike and I, we had the unique perspective being on both ends of this.”

As Payton put it, “It wasn’t coaches vs. competition committee.”

By Tuesday afternoon, the wheels were turning on the fourth iteration of the rule change: Proposal 6c. Some of the emotion of the early meetings was still evident as the discussion picked up again around 4:20 p.m. local time. But at that point, there was also investment on both sides—and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, rivals on the field, took key roles in remaining focused in the room. Both prioritized integrity.

“You have coaches, players, owners and really fans too giving to their heart and soul to your team, to your sport,” Lurie told me. “And we owe it to everybody to hold the integrity as high as possible. And accuracy—get to the truth. … We have technology to get it right, [so the thinking was], ‘Let’s design a way to do this, let’s not leave here until we assert that we are for integrity and not for walking out and not having this solved.’”

Lurie’s point was underscored in a simple reality that came up repeatedly in those meeting rooms this week: It makes no sense that a fan on the couch or in a bar has the benefit of viewing many angles in crystal clear HD on the broadcast for entertainment purposes, and the officials on the field don’t have it for very functional reasons.

The coaches’ more aggressive proposal was culled to include just pass interference, and to only use the booth at the end of the first half and games. Accordingly, some hard-line owners came off their anti-replay positions of just a few days earlier. A 31-1 vote represented a meeting halfway.

“Everyone had a say, everyone had a point, and everyone was just trying to get the game better,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “There were no individual agendas, we were trying to do what’s best for the game, for where we are now and where we may be going in the future.”

Or, as Harbaugh (appointed by the subcommittee a while back to spearhead the replay movement with Garrett) put it more succinctly, “We’ve come a long way from when we were sent out to the golf course.”

Marrone mentioned the future, and a look there can give us maybe the best example of how the coaches have been able to force their way into the conversation. The idea they had for the de facto sky judge? It’s not coming in 2019, but it might in ’20.

“This is just the beginning,” Lurie said. “I’ve wanted to expand replay for quite a while, I’ve agreed with Belichick on this over the years. Someday, I hope we can add player safety issues like roughing the passer and hits to defenseless players. That’s next, and I hope we can work on that for the 2020 season.”

The Eagles owner then called Tuesday’s change the “culmination” of the work replay proponents have done. “Unfortunately it took a real big mistake in the Saints game to have that happen,” he continued. “Sometimes, you need a catalyst outside of your own efforts. And that’s kind of what happened.”

At the same time, a key to this change was that Payton, whose team’s season was ended by that mistake, wasn’t there to settle a score. Officiating czar Al Riveron explained that with the Saints coach, “it was never about that play. It goes back to, ‘How do we get it right?’” The answer: A lot of work, and the coaches here agreed with Lurie that the work is not nearly done.

One piece of evidence? The sense that the proposal that the coaches put together Monday was delayed, not defeated.

“That specific proposal, we will return to that, it’s coming back,” Harbaugh said. “In a couple years, we'll get to the sky judge, just because it's so simple. But I don't know, I just think that this was really kind of neat, to see how good the coaches are. Everybody got to see that, what a great feel they have for all this stuff.”

In turn, they found their voice in a room where oxygen can be in short supply. So for the first time, judgment calls will be reviewable. For the first time, non-calls will be reviewable.

And for the first time in a while, the coaches carried a big stick at a meeting that is often dominated by those around, but not directly in the game. Which for 32 guys spending the week in Phoenix, was a welcome change.

On to your questions …



From Angry Bills Fan (‏@Madbillsfan): Do you think the Giants could take Daniel Jones? Fits nicely into [head coach Pat] Shurmur’s offence and has connections to Eli [Manning]?

This is the season for draft rumors, and so there has been a ton of speculation in scouting circles that the Giants are intrigued by Jones. Is this connecting the dots or genuine interest? I’d say it’s probably more of the former right now.

Jones was coached and developed by Manning family confidant David Cutcliffe at Duke. And sure, that means the Giants might be able to get better info on him, and it could make a passing of the torch from Manning to his heir a little more comfortable in the not-too-distant future.

I’m just not sold that Jones is worth the sixth (or the 17th) pick yet. Maybe the speculation is rooted in the Giants actually having strong feelings for the big, athletic Blue Devil passer. But I’d bet, at this point, they’d be more likely to wind up with Dwayne Haskins or Drew Lock.

From giuseppe sallustio (@joeysal7788): What’s the latest on the Patriots acquiring a WR? Any updates?

As we said a couple of weeks back, the Patriots did make trade calls on receivers this month. I’d heard some names that seem realistic, like Atlanta’s Mohamed Sanu or the Giants’ Sterling Shepard, and some less so, like Minnesota’s Adam Thielen. Those make sense, since all three are on affordable contracts, which is important for New England and its tight cap situation.

Another option could be to check in on players coming up on the end of rookie deals that haven’t worked out in other places (Washington’s Josh Doctson? Minnesota’s Laquon Treadwell?). The overriding theme here, of course, is that the pickings are kind of slim at that position, and the Patriots might find a better option on Day 2 of the draft, where they have four picks and a good amount of complementary types should be available (Ohio State’s Terry McLaurin would fit like a glove there, FYI).

From Brandon Eisenman (@BrandonCFB): What position should the Jaguars draft with their No. 7 pick?

The easy answer to this question is defense, even with their front seven as stocked as it is. The strength of that position group dictates that there will be really good value where Jacksonville is sitting right now, and the makeup of the draft class (Pick No. 7 might not be much different from Pick No. 17 or No. 27) will make dealing down a challenge.

But I’d keep an eye on the idea that they could go offensive line or—gasp!—quarterback in the Top 10 (check out our latest mock draft which has five QBs off the board in Round 1). A tackle like Jawaan Taylor (Florida) or Andre Dillard (Washington State) or Jonah Williams could be in play. And if maybe Haskins slips, I’m not saying the Jags will pull the trigger. I am saying they did a ton of work on this year’s quarterbacks going back to the fall, and could be lying in the weeds on one.

From vin (@chippedtoofus): If OAK picks QB at No. 4, what will Derek Carr’s trade value be?

From Byron Gruendl (@BG_925): Will the @Raiders use their draft capital to trade up for Kyler Murray?

I’d be surprised to see the Raiders trade up. But next week, they’ll be working out Haskins and Murray back-to-back, so the Oakland brass will get to know both players well. GM Mike Mayock maintained to me that he sees Derek Carr as a franchise quarterback, but will not fail to look for the chance to upgrade at any position.

One factor that could be in play: Carr’s money. If the Raiders think the two guys in the draft (or Lock, who they had at the Senior Bowl) will be equal to or better than Carr, then they could logically say they’d be better off with a younger player on a rookie deal (around $7 million per) than the veteran making a hair over $86 million over the next four years ($21.5 million per).

On the flip side, a non-guaranteed four-year, $86 million contract is a relative bargain for an experienced veteran like Carr, and increases his trade value. So could they get a fourth first-round pick from, say, a Washington or Miami? It’s not that crazy to think so, which you could throw into the Carr-vs.-rookie cost benefit analysis.

From Ross the Rugger (@RossRugger): What’s your take on the Browns improved roster and Freddie Kitchens and the staff he has with him on Cleveland?

I really like Kitchens’s staff. You have motivated coordinators in Todd Monken on offense, Steve Wilks on defense and Mike Priefer on special teams, and key depth pieces like linebackers coach Al Holcomb and receivers coach Adam Henry. Likewise, the roster has gotten a lot better over the last two years, to the point where it’s tough to find glaring holes.

So the x-factor here is chemistry, which is part of what will make Kitchens’ first year a challenge. No matter how you see them as players, Cleveland’s got a lot of big personalities, from Odell Beckham to Jarvis Landry and Baker Mayfield, plus a few second chance guys, like Antonio Callaway and Kareem Hunt.

In a lot of ways, it’s not unlike the team John Dorsey built in Kansas City. Of course, Andy Reid was always a champion of second-chance guys and those maybe a little less understood. Now, Kitchens will have to be too.

From Powder Pete (@steep_deeped): Is there a market for Andy Dalton?

I thought this was an interesting question, just because key Bengals coaches have popped up at the big quarterback pro days, and the team has the No. 11 pick. To be clear, I do think head coach Zac Taylor can work with Andy Dalton, and get a little more out of him, which is part of why he was hired. But if they were to draft one, and put Dalton on the market?

Maybe I’m too cynical about this, and his contract does make him attractive ($33.9 million over the next two years), but it’s hard for me to find a team that would fork over high-end draft capital for Dalton. A big part of that is that the league is very healthy at the position in general, maybe as healthy as it’s been in my lifetime.

In fact, 28 of 32 quarterbacks have either a quarterback they took in the first round, one making $20 million per or more or both on their roster. The four outliers: Miami, Dallas, Cincinnati and New England. And obviously Dallas and New England aren’t dealing for one, nor can the Bengals deal Dalton to Cincinnati. So it’s hard to see where Dalton would yield a huge return.

From patsfan22 (@redsox0624): What will happen to Robert Kraft [amid his charges of soliciting prostitution]?

Ultimately, it wouldn’t shock me if the Patriots negotiate discipline with the league (maybe similar to Jim Irsay’s of 2014, which was six games and $500,000), and whatever happens is positioned as a self-imposed punishment. That may not seem as likely now, with Kraft fighting hard in the legal arena. But I do think that both the NFL and the team would like whatever the outcome is to be handled amicably.

For what it’s worth, Kraft and Goodell were around each other plenty one-on-one this week, coming into and out of meetings, which is a) reflective of what we reported Monday, that it’s been business as usual NFL-wise for the Patriots owner and b) an indication that the two have probably discussed Kraft’s situation in depth.

From Craig Ginsberg (@CraigAdamG): If Josh Rosen was in this year’s draft class, where would he rank in comparison to the other QBs (ignoring draft order, needs of teams, etc.)?

Interesting question to wrap up. Before the combine, my buddies Daniel Jeremiah and Todd McShay both told me that Murray and Haskins would’ve been 5-6 in some order in last year’s class, behind Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Rosen. I’ve had some scouts have one or the other a tick higher—at fourth—but most see Mayfield, Darnold and either Allen or Rosen (or both) as better.

And that could lead to what we’ve talked about for a couple months, which is some teams making the conscious decision to punt on this year’s class and wait for Bama’s Tua Tagovialoa, Georgia’s Jake Fromm and Oregon’s Justin Herbert in 2020.

See you guys next week.

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