PHOENIX — It’s true. After months of discussion and debate, the NFL’s competition committee has no answer for the officiating mistake that marred last season’s NFC Championship Game.
There apparently will be no safety net in 2019 if and when two highly-graded officials fail to penalize an obvious pass interference foul happening a few feet away. This is maddening and begs for future trouble.
But while the committee is punting on that specific problem, it has nevertheless proposed an unprecedented rule change that would address some of the highest impact officiating mistakes of recent years. If approved — and to be frank, it will be a tough hurdle — the league would add pass interference fouls to its list of reviewable plays for one season. The proposal would represent a massive shift in philosophy in its own right, and more importantly, would address a type of mistake that affects the outcome of games more than any other penalty.
The NFL’s competition committee has called for a one-year trial on instant replay before any permanent decisions are made, as it proposed two versions of a modified expansion, according to documents released Thursday.
Defensive pass interference is a spot foul, and over the past three seasons, it has cost teams an average of 15.2 yards per call. Those fouls total nine percent of all penalties, but because of the yardage involved, they represent 70 percent of penalties with the largest impact on the league’s internal version of a win probability metric, according to documents distributed to committee members this winter. And of the 19 pass interference calls that most impacted win probability during that three-season period, 13 occurred in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.
The league’s internal analysis also examined the impact of pass interference fouls that were later graded to be incorrect by the league’s officiating department. Between 2016-18, 10.5 percent of incorrect calls were for defensive pass interference. But 24 of those plays ranked among the top 50 in impact on win probability. In other words, 10.5 percent of all incorrect calls represented nearly 50 percent of the incorrect calls that most hindered (or helped) a team’s chances to win.
None of this should be a surprise, even for causal fans who see huge chunks of yardage marked off for what can be mild contact, at best, between a defender and receiver. I’ve been writing for years about the disproportionate impact of pass interference and how replay could help mitigate a foul that really deserves unique attention. A 66-yard pass interference penalty against Detroit Lions cornerback Nevin Lawson in 2016 stands out as a particularly memorable example of how it can impact a game. (The only alternative is limiting the mark-off to 15 yards, which has never gained much support.)
If you’re going to wade into the murky and philosophically controversial area of shifting judgment and foul calls into replay, pass interference is a pretty good place to start. That appears to have guided the competition committee’s thought process as it weighed how to address a clamoring from coaches, players and fans to respond more aggressively to officiating mistakes.
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The committee actually proposed two separate expansions of replay. One would simply add pass interference. The second would add pass interference, roughing the passer and unnecessary hits against defenseless players. Unnecessary roughness ranked third on the league’s internal list of big impact incorrect calls. Both proposals break new ground because they for the first time include judgment and foul calls, a signal that at least some league decision-makers are ready to make the leap into previously walled-off areas of officiating administration.
If approved, a coach would be able to challenge pass interference using one of his two (or three) red flags. Replay officials would take over that responsibility in the final two minutes. Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, said: “If we move forward, this was the best start for possible solutions on addressing some of the issues.”
Indeed, a smooth rollout could serve as a back door for further changes that would eventually incorporate the kind of non-call that sparked the current round of debate in the first place. When Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman interfered with New Orleans Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis late in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game, the entire football world waited for a flag. When none came, there was no option for review. But there still wouldn’t be under the new proposal.
Committee chairman Rich McKay said that there remains a “real reluctance” for replay to “put a foul on the field” after the on-field officials chose not to call anything. It’s also less supported by data the committee relied on. There wasn’t much of a systematic pattern to the top 50 highest impact non-calls that were graded as inaccurate by the officiating department during the past three seasons. Offensive pass interference was at the top of the list with eight.
The debate will begin in earnest this week at the owners meetings in Phoenix, where rule changes require approval from 24 of 32 owners. So this entire discussion could be moot, of course.
“What we wanted to do is get proposals that … were based on what data told us the biggest plays were,” McKay said. “We know how tough replay is to get 24 votes for, in a league that from 1992-98 did not have replay at all. The reason we didn’t is that we couldn’t get 24 votes, even on a one-year proposal.
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“Replay is difficult. We welcome the discussion in Arizona, and the interesting thing will be: Can we come together around 24 votes? We felt like this was a good way to get into it. The data shows these are the most impactful [plays].”
At the scouting combine in February, committee member John Mara said he was “skeptical” that any expansion of replay could garner 24 votes. And less than a day after the league publicized the current proposal, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II told the team’s website that he would approach the debate with the idea that “we’re not really that excited to have replay expanded.” But Rooney also acknowledged a rising tide of interest around the league.
“I would say my sense is that there is an interest in expanding replay maybe more than I would like,” Rooney told the website, “so I do think some of these proposals are going to get serious attention. There’s more interest in looking at how we make sure that plays are getting corrected than in other years. My hope is that whatever we do ends up being a fairly limited change, whatever it is.”
Rooney also recited a familiar refrain, noting: “You’re just never going to get it perfect.”
I agree. But I don’t think replay was ever intended to elevate football into a flawlessly-officiated game. It’s not about giving a second set of eyes the chance to judge calls. It’s about structuring a safety net that can correct obvious mistakes, the kind that are clear to most everyone watching but slipped past the officials because, well, they’re human.
The NFL should be able to accept human imperfection while also moving to fix easily-correctable mistakes. These proposals don’t go as far as many fans might be looking for, but they are a start in the right direction. If a massive controversy in the game that decides the Super Bowl participants doesn’t nudge owners toward change, what would?