I wish they had thrown that flag in the NFC title game. I wish this because the Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman committed obvious pass interference. But I also wish it because flagging the Rams on that play would have allowed Saints coach Sean Payton to blow the game on his own merits—something he was already well on the way to doing—or it would have allowed the Saints to win the game and then put up a better fight against the Patriots in the Super Bowl than the Rams did, not that that would have taken much. No matter the ensuing result, throwing that goddamn flag would have prevented Saints fans from fully indulging in their worst instincts for self-pitying jazz hands, and most importantly it would have spared us yet another round of NFL grafting more and more twisty little passages onto the replay process, and onto the rulebook in general.
But no. No, we weren’t spared any of that. The ONE goddamn time a flag would have been welcome, and the NFL didn’t seize the opportunity. And now, we are in a land of shit.
By now, you know that the NFL reacted to that infamous play by changing the rules so that pass interference is subject to review, but only in the final two minutes of a game. They also remain intent on carving out an exception to this rule for the Hail Mary, which remains one of the most enjoyable plays in football despite its crummy success rate.
Of course, this requires the NFL to properly define just what constitutes a Hail Mary, and you know how good this league is at defining nominally basic things. It’s been over two weeks since Judy Battista reported this planned tweak of a tweak, and they still haven’t worked out a definition for the play. Do you rule it a Hail Mary by a certain distance? Can there only be five seconds or less left on the clock? Does the pass need a hang time of 3.2 seconds or longer? Should a priest come and literally bless the ball beforehand? I don’t know and I don’t particularly give a shit, because I already know that the NFL has found yet one more enjoyable thing to indirectly ruin with mass bureaucracy.
Let’s start with the fact that the NFL already views Hail Marys (Hails Mary?) as exceptional plays that deserve to stand apart from the traditional purview of pass interference calls. Here’s erstwhile Falcons GM and current Competition Committee Chair Rich McKay explaining it in the macho-est terms possible for all you diehards out there:
Remember, in that play, officiating-wise, the philosophy has been since I have been in the League, it is survival of the fittest. Everybody jumps. Everybody is shoving, everybody is trying to get the ball, knock it down, or catch it. We tell the officials, make sure you see if anybody gets pulled down or anybody gets dragged down, that is pass interference. Otherwise, it is a different play than any other play we have because there are multiple receivers and multiple defensive players in a common area.
Never mind that multiple receivers and multiple defensive players can occupy a common area on plenty of other plays, especially in a Brian Schottenheimer offense. McKay’s view, which I sincerely understand, is that he doesn’t want such a critical play being determined by a ticky-tack penalty. It’s apparently fine for ANY other critical pass play to be at the mercy of pass interference bylaws, and so the obvious conclusion to draw here is Hey, maybe pass interference as a spot penalty should be reconsidered entirely, instead of dicking around with replay some more except in the case of ONE stupid fucking thing and then hiring a team of white-shoe lawyers to draw up 87 new pages of rules to explain what that one thing technically is.
But no. The NFL didn’t think that way. They hardly thought at all. If they had, they wouldn’t still be working out the kinks to a rubber hose they’ve deliberately kinked. Florio thinks it would be best if the definition of “Hail Mary” was left to the discretion of individual officials. That is the worst fucking idea I’ve ever heard, which means that’ll probably be where McKay and the rest of the league end up.
Because once again, we have arrived at a juncture where the NFL, rather than exercising genuine introspection and willing itself to make hard-but-overdue changes in the face of crisis, adds MORE bullshit to a growing pile of it and hopes that the new stench of it covers up the old one. Pass interference in the NFL can make for an extraordinarily long and decisive infraction: really the only penalty with such consistently impactful potential. I don’t want it fucking with the Hail Mary, but I don’t want it fucking with any OTHER pass either. Shielding it from the new replay process only highlights how shitty that process is to begin with.
College football, despite its own shortcomings, has a maximum 15-yard penalty for PI, and it hasn’t suffered for it. Your average Big 12 game still ends 77-63 without the added yard-padding. The NFL wouldn’t suffer for this change, either. It has more than enough offense and more than enough remaining flags in the quiver to help make up for the loss. None of that seems to matter. Instead, the league has elected to play scared once again, remaining even more afraid to lose than Mike McCarthy. Every time they have a chance to keep things simple, they bring in an extra team of poorly trained Yorkies to spray diarrhea all over everything.
As it stands now, it’s puzzlingly critical to the NFL that pass interference remain a spot foul UNLESS it’s on a play deemed too long, too late, and, in their minds, too rowdy to merit the infraction. Reviewing is supposed to be objective; drawing up situational exemptions only further confuses refs who currently preside over games like a drunken justice of the peace at a Vegas wedding. This is a rowdy-ass sport with rowdy-ass fans. Why, I do believe there’s a song about this. I would like more of this rowdiness to be exempt from in-game filibustering. I would like the Ginger Hammer and company to accept the human element on ALL plays instead of trying to endlessly perfect what cannot be perfected. Somehow, even when they try to prevent extra replays and flags for shit, they only add MORE confusion.
This is tragic because a proper Hail Mary—whether it’s complete or whether it comes tantalizing close—is perfect enough. You get to hang right on the edge of a miracle when that happens. That I gotta sit there now as the booth and the refs and six dudes guzzling Red Bull in New York hem and haw over whether or not one IS one doesn’t exactly ratchet up the excitement. All this because they FORGOT to throw a flag, of all things. I wanna barf.
I’ll still watch this shit. I’m a sheep like everyone else. Every time I put on my sportswriter jammies and am like THIS WILL BE THE DOWNFALL OF FOOTBALL, I am always wrong, and I am always complicit as a viewer in proving my folly. And I have no problem being wrong. I just wish the NFL didn’t, either.