MIAMI — Roger Goodell’s annual press conferences have such a formal, heavily orchestrated feel that it’s hard to remember if we should worry about concussions in football or the mother of the Bar Mitzvah boy bursting into tears. At this year’s gala, there were metal detectors and ropes and reporters reading their questions, because this is the kind of affair that makes people nervous for no apparent reason. Some of the questions were very good, and most of them served as a collective reminder of just how wide-ranging and complicated Goodell’s job as the NFL’s commissioner really is.
Figuratively, at least, Goodell went from London to Mexico to Las Vegas to Canada; got stuck in L.A. traffic; and talked about brain damage, retirement, domestic violence, mental health, collective bargaining, the league’s poor current record of hiring African-American coaches, the league’s oft-forgotten history of not allowing African-American players… all fair questions, certainly, but it’s a lot for one man, even one as well-paid as Goodell, to answer. And yet, they may all be overshadowed on Sunday night by one simple question:
What if a controversial call decides who wins the Super Bowl?
If you thought last year’s blown pass interference call in the NFC championship game was a nightmare for the league, imagine if that debacle happened on Super Bowl Sunday. It would make Goodell wish for the sweet serenity of Deflategate.
This could happen in any Super Bowl, and it wouldn’t necessarily be the league’s fault. As we all know, the refs are human, and humans are not perfect, except for Patrick Mahomes. But the league is especially in danger of Holy-Crap-A-Bad-Call-Decided-The-Super-Bowl-Gate this year, because it hastily instituted a ridiculous pass-interference review rule last spring. It’s been a disaster from the start; and it will probably get fixed this offseason. In the meantime …
“I think they’re counting quarters—trying to get through four more quarters,” former NFL officiating czar Mike Pereira said, who is now a rules analyst for FOX.
The rule was passed by the league’s Committee For Making Sure We Always Have Enough Dumb Rules. To be fair, it was a heated moment—the Saints were angry that an L.A. Rams cornerback mauled one of their receivers and an official missed it because he was checking his phone or something. Saints fans were revolting. Louisiana state legislators, many of whom knew what a football looked like, screamed about the injustice.
And so you might understand why the league decided that coaches could challenge pass-interference penalties—except, that’s not quite what happened. Replay officials can only change a pass-interference call (or non-call) if it sees “clear and obvious visual evidence.” This may have sounded good at the time, even if you were not heavily medicated. The league wanted to limit these challenges. But in practice, it has led to this sequence, again and again:
1. Defensive back commits pass interference, official misses call.
2. Coach throws challenge flag.
3. Replay official declines to change the call.
4. A nation of well-adjusted gambling addicts screams that the replay official is a moron.
The problem with this scenario is that, by the letter of the law, the replay official actually got it right. The standard for overturning a call is higher than the standard for calling it on the field. Pereira says whenever he tries to explain this, “Everybody looks at me like, ‘You’ve been drinking too much Tito’s.’”
Imagine Major League Baseball declaring that replay can only change a home-run call if the ball is at least six feet inside the foul pole. That’s basically what the NFL has done here.
It happened because the rule was passed in a rush, and because the game of pro football features more rules and paperwork than Congress. Changing the rule mid-season was not realistic; nobody does that. So the league essentially started counting quarters until it could fix the rule. There are only four left, but half the country will be watching them.
“I think the fear is that it would be over this pass interference rule: to have that affect the outcome of the game, and that have the rule disappear next year —which, to me, would make it look worse,” Pereira said.
In the final two minutes of halves, the play is not challengeable—booth officials must decide to review it. Even then, they do so “under stricter criteria than for other reviewable plays.” Basically, a rule is a rule, except when it isn’t. Goodell surely does not care who hoists the Vince Lombardi Trophy. He must just hope that our lasting memory of the game does not involve Mike Pereira.
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