The NFL’s competition committee issued its recommendations for how instant replay for pass interference will work, based on the rule that had been approved in March. On one hand, some relatively prudent judgement has been ironed into the standards the league will use to review and overturn pass interference calls and non-calls. On the other hand, the NFL inadvertently revealed exactly what kind of mess this rule can become.
Former NFL officiating chief and current Fox Sports rules analyst Dean Blandino told me the new rule amounts to “the biggest change since they brought replay back in” 1999, and that “it’s definitely going to have a big impact.” Because the only thing that seems to be clear about the rule is that it’s going to be anything but.
First, the statement put out this afternoon by the NFL’s football operations department (emphasis in the original):
The replay official will stop the game after the two-minute warning of each half and during OT when there is “clear and obvious visual evidence” that a pass interference foul may or may not have occurred, based on viewing the play live or any initial replays. A stoppage will occur under stricter criteria than for other reviewable plays to prevent excessive game stoppages.
A decision on the field will only be reversed based on clear and obvious visual evidence that the ruling was incorrect, the same standard for all reviews. This is wholly dependent on video angles shown by broadcast networks.
By rule, pass interference requires an act that “significantly hinders” an opponent’s opportunity to make a play on the ball.
All passing plays will be subject to review for pass interference. The “Hail Mary” play will be reviewed in replay consistent with the guidelines for officiating the play on the field.
This all sounds pretty common-sensical! It’s also not unlike the straightforward statement the Canadian Football League issued last week to lay out its standard for reviewing pass interference calls and non-calls. The NFL’s replay official will only be reviewing calls and non-calls for pass interference at the end of halves and games when it’s “clear and obvious,” and there will be “stricter criteria” than usual to warrant a stoppage. And coaches will be empowered to challenge pass interference calls and non-calls outside of the final two minutes of each half and OT. So far, so good.
Also, the NFL made no attempt to define the undefinable when it comes to the Hail Mary, which would have been a giant fart noise. So unless someone does something flagrant, Hail Marys should be left alone. Okay, then! All clear! What could have been another disastrous NFL rule overcorrection seems to have been crafted with the careful concern for its sensible application. Good for the NFL! They done good, for once! Ah, but never underestimate the league’s ability to explain clarity into incoherence.
On Tuesday, NFL Media’s Mike Giardi passed along one example of a call from 2018 that would have been overturned under the new review standards:
Now, yes, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to notice that Chargers wideout Mike Williams pushed off on Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller, who also knocked Williams’s left arm with his right hand moments before the ball got there. Which should be offsetting penalties, according to the rule. Such a call would have resulted in the re-do of a third-and-goal from the 10 with eight seconds remaining in a game the Chargers trailed by seven but eventually went on to win in part because of the defensive pass interference call on the field.
But go back to the NFL’s statement from today. The replay official is tasked with initiating a review “based on viewing the play live or any initial replays,” and that any decision “is wholly dependent on video angles shown by broadcast networks.” I went back and watched the broadcast of that Chiefs-Chargers game. At no point was Williams’s push-off even a consideration after the flag was thrown. The conversation between color commentator Troy Aikman and rules analyst Mike Pereira was entirely about whether Fuller interfered with Williams, though play-by-play man Joe Buck at one point intoned, almost as an aside, “It looked like Mike Williams got an arm extended as well.” Three replays were shown, and all three picked up the play only after Williams did what NFL senior VP of officiating Al Riveron now says he should have been flagged for:
Once more: Remember that the replay official must use the broadcast angles to make a determination. Yet the broadcast replays didn’t even show Williams’s alleged infraction. As Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio asked, would the replay official have noticed the Williams push-off from the live-action play without the benefit of additional replay angles? And this is one of the league’s own examples for what constitutes a play that both warrants a review and an overturned call. This ought to go over well.
It was screamingly obvious that the play from the Rams-Saints NFC championship game that triggered the rule change was a blown call. But this new rule—and the league’s own instructions for framing it—appears to be subject to an altogether different standard.
“You know, one person may look at that and think it’s clear and obvious—another may not,” Blandino told me of the Chargers-Chiefs play. “And then once it goes to review, then the standard—they said that it’s ‘clear and obvious,’ but when you start to look at some of the plays they cited ... that’s more of a letter-of-the-law standard. And it’s going to be interesting to see if they start overturning or creating fouls based on that standard, when really, on the field, that was never intended to be pass interference.”
More Blandio: “In my experience, I never thought creating a rule for one play—even as obvious as that play was, you can get bad rules that way. Nobody wants to see [what happened in Rams-Saints], and everybody wants to fix that. But I feel like, you create a rule to fix that play, and what we’re going to see is a whole bunch of other plays that are going to be impacted, and very few of the plays like what happened in the Rams-Saints game”
Like last year with the helmet rule and the roughing the passer rule, which both proved to be inscrutable once put into play, Blandino envisions the preseason and even the first few weeks of the regular season serving as a testing ground, with some kind of eventual course correction to follow.
“I don’t think,” he said, “anybody knows exactly how this is going to play out until we start actually playing games.”