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NFL Officials Still Aren’t Sure How the New Pass Interference Replay Rule Will Work

Eleven weeks from the start of the season, the new rule allowing video review of pass interference remains very much a work in progress. The head of the officials’ union, a three-time Super Bowl veteran, weighs in on the policy—and its potential pitfalls—from the perspective of the zebras. Plus, your questions on the rookie of the year candidates, Lamar Jackson’s Year 2, the ongoing fallout from the Patriots-Texans tiff and more.

NFL officials this spring had more access to the decision-making process on the rules than ever before. Some were invited to competition committee meetings, others were aggressively questioned by coaches during their site visits at OTAs. And the officials have one more chance to weigh in, at the annual officiating clinic set for July 11-14 in Dallas.

The NFL doesn’t do much by mistake, and it’s fair to surmise this wasn’t an accident either.

The reason is simple and straightforward: On-boarding pass interference into the review system has been anything but a straight-line process. The Hall of Fame Game is six weeks from today, and the season opener five weeks after that, and we still don’t have finality on how the process will work. Most importantly, the guys who will be charged with overseeing the changes don’t have finality.

“The officials are going to call whatever it is they’re told to call,” said NFL Referees Association executive director Scott Green on Wednesday. “But it’s got to be clear. A lot of times preseason will help flesh that out. But this thing has sort of been moving pretty quickly, and it’s not just the official on the field, it’s the replay official in New York as well, and how fast they can pick up a play they want to look at.

“As everything gets to be more technical, you have to be careful. And as it gets more technical, you start to wonder, ‘Where is this leading to?’ And there’s concern over length of game, how many different things are going to be stopped. I suspect in preseason you’ll see a lot more stoppages as they play through it. It obviously has got everybody’s attention.”

As Green said, the officials just want clarity now on how this is going to work, which, of course, isn’t the first time they’ve been in this spot. Last June there were plenty of questions as to how the new helmet rules were going to be called. That, ultimately, got worked out, with the preseason a proving ground. The new pass interference policy will have to be, too.

A memo went out last week with language explaining that the replay official would have control, after all, over stopping the game to review offensive and defensive pass interference calls inside two minutes and in overtime—and that the standard to call for such a review would be higher than it is for other stoppages in the same time period.

Wednesday was the deadline for teams to provide feedback to the league on the rule. If there’s not a lot of pushback, the NFL will formalize the rule, and take it to the clinic to work with the officials in July.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t bumps coming.

It’s officially the deadest time in the NFL calendar, but we still have plenty to get you caught up on. So I’m taking your questions on:

Lamar Jackson’s potential for a Year 2 breakthrough.
• How Jets GM Joe Douglas will spend his summer.
• My Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year picks.
• 2020 free agent talk.
Nick Caserio, the Patriots and the Texans.

But because the decision and finalization of this rule could come down today, we’re starting with the officials’ view of the new pass-interference review process.

As a quick refresher, here’s how this has worked over the last three months.

• The NFL voted through a plan in March to expand the replay system to include offensive and defensive pass inference—both calls and non-calls—for the 2019 season only. Inside two minutes and in overtime, the replay official was to control reviews, as is the case with any other review of any other foul.

• The officials and officiating czar Al Riveron had the aforementioned annual visits with clubs and gathered opinions on the change. At that point, concern over stoppages in the final two minutes and overtime was raised, and the competition committee considered the idea of keeping OPI and DPI in the coaches challenge system throughout games. Also, with that, Hail Marys would be exempt from the challenge system.

• The committee discussed the idea with the owners at the league’s spring meeting in May, and the owners voted to empower the committee to unilaterally make the change, but only after their teleconferences, done by division, with the coaches on June 4 and 5. The committee was also charged with drafting language to define a Hail Mary.

• On June 13 the league sent out a draft of the rules. The feedback led the competition committee to revert to the original idea—keeping the OPI and DPI reviews in the hands of the replay official, rather than dependent on a coach’s challenge, in the final two minutes and OT—with stricter guidelines than there are for other replay calls. And the Hail Mary will indeed be subject to the review system.

And here we are, with lots of questions remaining and a season fast approaching. That’s why I figured it was a good time to talk to Green, who not only runs the NFLRA but was an on-field official in the league from 1991 to 2013, with three Super Bowls on his résumé (he was the head ref for Super Bowl XLIV). Here’s our conversation from Wednesday.

MMQB:What’s the overriding reaction you’ve gotten from officials on the change?

Scott Green: The reaction from the officials’ standpoint is mistakes are made. You have to be careful with the attempts to fix a mistake that’s made. And I’d say, in general, that officials see it as an overreaction (to the NFC title game). Obviously, we want to get everything right that we can. But you have to be careful about the flow of the game, and the effect on the game, the more and more technical we’re permitting the game to get. The problem inside two minutes is you don’t have a lot of time to decide whether you’re going to stop the play or not. And if the replay official errs, they’re going to err on the side of stopping plays.

MMQB: How has the league office been to work with?

SG: Our folks have been going with the office folks, with Al and a couple of the other guys, on meetings with the coaches in connection with the OTAs. And they’re looking at plays, going through the plays. You put the play up—“Is this interference?” One coach says it’s not interference, the next says it is. I think it’s still a process that they’re working through. And from the standpoint of the folks on the field, they’re going to call a game the same way they’ve always called a game. If they see it and it’s interference, they’re gonna throw the flag. If it’s not, they’re gonna let it go. Now, what happens after that, whether inside two minutes and replay wants to stop it, or a coach wants to challenge it, it’s outside what we’ve had. But as far as what’s a foul and what’s not a foul, that’s not changing.

MMQB: So how do you think this will actually change things?

SG: I think what you’re going to see is more of a technical review process, and things that in the past may not have been a foul, where there was some hand-fighting, get caught. When you slow it down, frame-by-frame on it, that could be a concern. You’ll pick up more fouls because of what is now a more technical approach to determining whether it’s a foul or not a foul.

There was a big fear on the Hail Mary at the end of a game. Obviously, there’s contact down there, there’s guys getting position, you’re getting ready to go up for the ball. If you stop and slow it down to the point where you say, “Wow, it looks like he’s got that guy’s arm,” where it wasn’t anywhere near as severe—they’re saying they want it to be reviewed as closely to what we would see on the field. You start creeping on [with] more technology like that, it could be a problem.

MMQB: Did you feel like your guys had a chance to be heard?

SG: There’s a little back and forth—a lot of it is like the hit on the quarterback last year, we went through a definitional thing, and clarification. What’s different here, of course, is you’re injecting replay into the process. We do have guys who go to the competition committee meetings, and there was definitely participation by our folks this year. We had some vocal people. And the coaches appreciated it. It creates a much better dialogue. And we’re going to continue to push that process. Because we do feel like we do need to have direct input.

MMQB: How are the rest of your officials’ questions going to be answered, after the final rule goes through?

SG: The clinic will be important—that we have specific plays where they can say, “This is interference, this is not, and this will go to replay.” The other thing is the logistics in New York. On the one o’clock games, you could have four or five plays in the last two minutes that are being looked at. And logistically you can’t say, “Put the Cincinnati game on hold for five minutes while we figure out what we’re doing in these other two.” That’s a little bit of a concern from an officiating standpoint. You’re down on the field, and you’re obviously talking to New York, who will have the final decision on what they want to do. So I think the logistics are as important as some of the other issues, how it’s going to be called.

MMQB: I’ve found that a great majority of coaches want a sky judge. Do you ultimately want this to lead to that?

SG: Yeah, from the union’s standpoint, it’d be another [official]. There’s definitely something about having been on the field, having been an official. It’s one thing to be able to look at things on replay, it’s another thing to having been out there and actually knowing what that feels like, when two guys are hand-checking each other as they go up for a ball. The devil could be in the detail. But a former official certainly could be helpful. Whether they actually do the replay piece, maybe. But at least having somebody up in the booth who could quickly add input, that is not something I’d be opposed to.

MMQB: So almost as a senior advisor?

SG: Yeah, and sometimes it’s not, “pick up the flag.” It’s, “You guys need to talk.” Sometimes there could be, from two different angles, you have two different opinions. But a signal to the guys where, “You might want to talk about that one. Did you see 27?” I’m not sure you want a guy up there actually throwing flags. But as an aide or an assistant to crew, yeah, I think there’s some potential there.

As we wrapped up, Green mentioned the importance of continuity in crews, and the trust that’s built within them, something he experienced over those 23 years on the field. As the athletes have gotten bigger and stronger and faster, that trust has become even more important. With things moving faster, officials have to be able to lean on one another.

He raised this because as he sees it, there’s still an importance in each crew on the field having a feel for the game in question and calling it as such, which is part of why he liked the idea of a sky judge—since that judge would be part of the crew.

“There’s a trust that develops—‘These guys are gonna call a good game,’ ” Green said. “Whether it’s the coaches, the players, even sometimes the announcers, and this has often been the case, you watch a play three times, you say, ‘How could he miss that call?’ Well, [stuff] happens, man. Whether it’s ice hockey, whether it’s basketball, whether it’s football, they’re not robots calling the game.”

That much, in how this has all played out, is abundantly clear.

On to your questions …

MAIL TIME!

From Louie (@Louie_Rock): How does the six weeks between now and camp differ for a new front office, like the Jets versus a long established front office like Seattle or Pittsburgh?

Louie, we covered a bunch of this in my MMQB column this week, with new Jets GM Joe Douglas. So you can find some answers there. And I did ask Douglas if—knowing he’ll be working straight through (and not going to Ocean City, Md., or the Outer Banks in North Carolina like he usually would)—he’ll be the only guy on the football side there over the next few weeks.

“Part of me hopes that I'm the only guy in the building so I can just grind,” he said. “But I’m sure there’s gonna be people here and probably on the business side. Even if I'm the only guy on the football side, there’ll be people in on the business side I can just walk down say hellow, maybe share a cup of coffee with some people, get to know them a little bit better.

“It'll just be more of a working summer for me.”