Five pivotal moments that brought change to reviewing pass interference calls – and what’s next

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One of my first league meetings was in 1989, when Pete Rozelle, worn down by two late-tenure player strikes and endless litigation with Al Davis, unexpectedly resigned as commissioner in Palm Desert, Calif. In the 30 years since, the annual spring meetings, a time of reviewing the good and bad from the previous year and setting the table for the future, have most often featured internecine strife over labor or TV or expansion or replay or player health and safety … something. Often, two or three somethings.

Nine years ago, during the coaches’ annual golf outing at the league meetings, owners passed a rule mandating both teams touch the ball in postseason overtime games, unless the first team with possession scores a touchdown. The coaches were dead-set against it, figuring it added another layer of decision-making that they didn’t want. (Though it has hardly turned out that way; the coin-flip winner almost always takes the ball to start OT.) I remember coaches returning from golf had this attitude of, The owners did WHAT?!

Over the years, that kind of it’s-our-game attitude by owners has been common. But this year, from the start, it was different. This was a kumbaya year. Eight days ago, arriving for the meetings, Giants co-owner and Competition Committee member John Mara told me there wasn’t nearly enough support to replay-review interference not called on the field. I thought there was no chance of the league approving what had been the owners’ great white whale—allowing replay on a subset of plays that didn’t get flagged by officials on the field. Then five things happened, in chronological order:

1. Goodell told the owners stridently Monday that though replaying pass-interference calls and non-calls wasn’t perfect, it was important to fix a problem laid out for all the world to see in the climactic moments of the NFC title game. They needed to pass a rule allowing replay to address interference. Though Goodell’s reputation in the public eye has been badly tarnished in recent years, he still gets high grades as a diplomat among the 32 owners. “Roger felt strongly in favor of being able to put a flag on the field, in response to the NFC Championship Game,” said a club official close to the process. “He was definitely a vital person to all this.”

2. The coaches met as a group Monday and stressed how much they wanted interference addressed in the replay process. One coach in the meeting said: “Technology is too advanced to leave replay alone. All of America sees a huge mistake that we can do nothing about.”

What the coaches really wanted was an eighth official in the upstairs officiating booth, the so-called Sky Judge, but the league was steadfast against that because of the presence already of a replay official at each game, and of league officiating czar Al Riveron conversing with the on-field ref during replay reviews. The Sky Judge would be superfluous, the league believed—plus there’d be a challenge to get 17 Sky Judges ruling with the same standard from crew to crew. Interesting side note: Monday began with a full-league meeting during which international play and players, new marketing plans and gambling preparedness plans were discussed. And so when the coaches’ meeting stretched from its scheduled one-hour length to an hour-and-a-half, then close to two hours, a couple of coaches wanted to hurry things up. Not New England’s Bill Belichick, who had a few pointed words about the time they’d spent on the non-football stuff that morning and told his peers, essentially, We’re not hurrying out of this meeting. This stuff’s too important.The coaches left after two-plus hours, giving their two Competition Committee members, Payton and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, their proxy to push hard for some form of replay on pass-interference.

3. “Let’s hear from everyone who has something to say,” Competition Committee chair Rich McKay said to open a full league meeting Tuesday morning. Dallas coach Jason Garrett, a member of the coaches subcommittee of the Competition Committee (and a Princeton grad), had something to get off his chest. He spoke for about four minutes, and when he was finished, the room gave him a loud ovation. One top club official told me that in more than a decade at these meetings, he’d never heard such a reception for a speech. I found Garrett late Tuesday and asked him what he’d said.

“I talked about the credibility of the game and the focus of the game,” Garrett said. “And what resonated with me after the two Championship Games was this: The four teams playing at the end of January, the best teams in our game, play overtime games. Fantastic football games. And what is America talking about? Officiating.

“The two best teams in the NFC play this unbelievable game. Great coaches, great players. A Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees, and so no one is even talking about the game and all of those elements after the game. They’re talking about one thing: the call that was missed. And so for me, the idea of somehow finding a way within the structure that already exists to be able to rectify that play, that egregious mistake, is paramount. If we all put our heads together, we can solve this situation. As we go forward, we can clean this up so that this isn’t the focal point of everybody at the end of this unbelievable game. It goes to the credibility of the game and the integrity of the game.”

“A pivotal moment,” said this top club official. “I think when people heard it in such a convincing and simplistic way, even those who were really opposed to reviewing plays that hadn’t been flagged started to think we needed to do something about it.”

This club official, by the way, had been opposed to being able to review non-called interference plays. His team—his owner, actually—now was on the fence.

4. The Competition Committee met again at midday Tuesday and settled on the fourth proposal they’d considered on pass interference. The committee was now split, 4-4, on support of “putting a flag on the field,” as everyone called it—allowing coaches to replay-challenge pass-interference both called and not called. Still opposed on the Competition Committee: Dallas’ Stephen Jones, Green Bay’s Mark Murphy, Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Denver’s John Elway. The last tweak, rules proposal 6C, had the key element: making pass-interference reviews allowable either after flags or with no flags, with the proviso that in the last two minutes of the first half and the game that the calls be subject to booth review only.

The important element here: Hail Mary plays. Some teams felt if coaches could challenge a Hail Mary on the last play of the first half or game, it would lead to every one being challenged, and coaches pushing for interference to be called the same on Hail Mary plays (when everything but a tackle or egregious shove is overlooked). That was the key change. Murphy and Elway switched to being in favor of 6C. And soon, after more discussion, Jones and Tomlin changed, and now the Competition Committee was 8-0 in favor of 6C … allowing all pass-interference plays, called or not called, to be eligible for review, with all reviews in the last two minutes of a half called only from the replay official upstairs.

5. The vote was anticlimactic. Cincinnati was the only team opposed, with 83-year-old owner Mike Brown, who thinks replay is far too intrusive on the sport, casting the no vote. The meeting to approve the new standard lasted only about 25 minutes.

Fair question to Payton from Sal Paolantonio in a gaggle of reporters afterward: “Think the coaches staged a coup?”

“Not at all,” Payton said. “Anything but. I think that today, this set of owners meetings, forget the specific rule, there were just a lot of great, healthy discussions about our game. Someone asked about our fans specifically in New Orleans. I said, ‘Look, when you’re on this committee, there’s a little bit of a responsibility for the game and football fans in general.’ That’s what this meeting was about.”

Later, to me, Payton said: “Bill Belichick said it best when he talked to the media—it’s an honor to be part of the process. This was not a Saints rule or a Rams rule. It’s an NFL rule. Maybe that play in the championship game was the Titanic, and it led to this moment. But what happened this week was about making the game better. I truly believe we did.”

When Payton left the Flagstaff Ballroom, he picked up all his papers—the rules proposals and his notes—and he organized them neatly, and took them home to New Orleans. For him, those papers are souvenirs from a week he’ll want to remember.

Tougher Gig For Al Riveron

Now what?

The man who preceded VP of Officiating Al Riveron, Dean Blandino, thinks about the details now. Riveron, I’m sure, is thinking of them too. I requested some time with Riveron on Thursday, and the league declined, preferring to get its new plan together before putting the man in charge of it out front.

“The important thing,” Blandino said, “is establishing a standard. There is already so much pressure in that job [VP of Officiating] anyway. I doubt you’ll see a lot of calls overturned. My feeling is there is so much contact downfield the standard will have to be high to overturn the call, or to give a pass-interference penalty when one wasn’t called on the field.”

That is my biggest question: We know the bar will be very high, as it always has been, for an interference call on a Hail Mary play. There will have to be a clear tackle, or a two-hand shove, for an interference call in the end zone, according to two members of the Competition Committee I spoke to. Good. Hail Marys should require a mugging for a flag.

But what of borderline pass-interference calls or non-calls? In regular replay, to overturn a call requires incontrovertible evidence that the call on the field (or, in the case of some interference calls, the non-call on the field) was wrong. What would be the standard for interference? The same?

As former ref Terry McAulay, now an NBC rules analyst, said Saturday: “What about the Brandin Cooksplay?”

Very interesting. With 4:28 left in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 53, New England led the Rams 10-3. Jared Goff threw deep down the right sideline for Cooks, who had a step on cornerback Stephon Gilmore, with safety Duron Harmon sprinting over from center field. As the ball fell to earth around the New England five-yard line, Gilmore reached toward Cooks and grabbed his left forearm. As Cooks reached for the ball, Gilmore had his hand on the arm for maybe half a second. As the ball got to Cooks, the Ram receiver appeared to get both hands on it, but he could not make the catch.

In real time, it was hard to notice any sort of early grab or touch by Gilmore. And Cooks did manage to get his left hand in position to help try to make the catch, though the left arm was clearly slightly restricted. The ball fell incomplete.

On the next snap, Goff threw an interception. For the Rams, that was the game.

Via NFL GamePass, I was able to see the replay of the Super Bowl 53 game telecast Saturday. I watched the Gilmore tug/grab/arm-restriction between 20 and 25 times. On the replay, CBS’ Tony Romo said, “Gilmore grabs his arm just a little bit.”

Jim Nantz said: “Gotta make that catch.”

Romo: “ … Gilmore’s got a little bit of his arm right there.”

From the time Cooks stands up after the contact to the time the next play is snapped, 37 seconds pass. That would be enough time, clearly, for Rams coach Sean McVay to be told in his ear by an upstairs replay analyst to throw the flag—or at least to tell him there might be something there.

That is the kind of play that could torment Riveron and his New York officiating staff next fall. It’s close, the kind of play that, if called, you could understand and support. There’s a restriction, though not a killer restriction. Are these close calls the kinds of game-turning plays you’d want to have reversed?

But the Competition Committee reviewed the Cooks play in the runup to the meeting, and viewed it as a foul that should have been called. So when the league proceeds to define interference in review, it’s likely with that letter-of-the-law direction from the committee in mind. This is something that needs to be studied and resolved by Riveron and the NFL office. In 2017, Riveron got ripped for a series of ticky-tack replay calls. He was better in 2018. But it could be a rocky road in 2019, with interference calls and non-calls added to Riveron’s already crowded plate.

I would understand a reversal there, but I don’t think I would have overturned it.

“I absolutely feel the same way,” McAulay said.

“In my opinion,” Blandino said, “that is a good example of the on-field standard being different than the replay standard. In real time it’s so close the only way to consistently officiate it is to not call the foul, which is what they did. With the ability to slow it down on video you can see the contact is early. This to me is the biggest issue with making these plays reviewable.”

No—the biggest issue is how tortuous and controversial pass interference is as a foul. That’s why I think the standard for overturning a call or non-call on the field has be a high standard. The evidence has to be overwhelming. “To think the two of us can watch the same play and agree on pass interference all the time, that’ll never happen,” Raider coach Jon Gruden said at the meetings. “For us to think we can look at a replay in super, super, super-slo-mo and determine whether it is or it isn’t is unrealistic. I tried to do it in [the ESPN Monday night] booth for nine years.”

I’ve always said that from Labor Day till early February, the most important job in the league belongs to the commissioner. Number two: the vice president of officiating. For Riveron, that job gets a lot tougher in 2019.

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How Broncos’ Von Miller is taking his game to the next level

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Broncos: Englewood, Colo.
Saturday, July 20
Von Miller is the key to the Denver season

Late in the first padded practice of the year for the Broncos, Von Miller lined up on the defensive left edge, outside rookie tight end Noah Fant. Miller, suddenly 30, has always had a get-off stance similar to Lawrence Taylor’s, one foot back, leaning forward, threatening the inside but usually going outside, so you have to respect both. At the snap, he beat Fant outside and charged at rookie quarterback Drew Lock; it would have been sack in real life, but you don’t sack the quarterback in training camp. Next snap: Miller dropped three steps back into coverage, then pivoted quick and cut to his left, velcroing himself to an undrafted wideout, Romell Guerrier, in the slot. Lock, nothing there to his right, threw incomplete to the left side of the field.

The second play is more important to the 2019 Broncos, strangely enough.

The new coaching staff, led by pass-rush maestro Vic Fangio, has set out to make a very good player great at all things. Last year, Von Miller was not. He was sloppy. He got called for three encroachment penalties in the first half against the Niners late in the season and got yanked by coach Vance Joseph. PFF rated him the 16th-best edge-rusher in the game (low for him), 57th in coverage and 127th against the run. Numbers don’t lie. Miller was not a complete player last year. That was a significant factor in the Broncos sinking from third in team defense in 2017 to 22nd last year—and the dismissal of Joseph. Poll 32 offensive line coaches, and Miller might still be the most respected edge-rusher in the game. But in an era when edge-rush is all-important, it’s interesting to note that Miller, in eight seasons, has never won Defensive Player of the Year.

So why am I talking about blanket-covering Romell Guerrier in the slot? Because Fangio and his respected outside linebackers coach, Brandon Staley, are building Miller from the ground up, fundamental by fundamental. They know he can rush the passer, and know he can be better even at that. But they know he has to be better at the other aspects of the game, because he’s the defensive leader of the team, and other players follow him. If Miller’s working his footwork and his drops and coverage early in training camp, and that shows up at nighttime when practice tape gets dissected in front of the team, well, then Bradley Chubb and Derek Wolfe and all the new guys are going to see that and they’re going to work to be perfect too.

After practice, I said to Miller I thought that coverage play was a good example of the re-made Miller—and the respect he must have for Fangio early on.

“A hundred percent,” said Miller. “Just do the job you’re asked to do, coached to do, every play.”

More Miller: “I got a great coach here, one of the best coaches I’ve ever had in my life. We have great leadership here but he’s an outside linebacker guy. He’s coached a lot of great ones. I wanna be his greatest product yet. It’s the little things, like coach Fangio says. When you really focus on the little things it turns into a change of game. It turns into a whole different athlete. I bought into that. I bought into my outside linebackers coach as well, Coach Staley. He stays up super late thinking about how to make me better … I can really appreciate that. I bought into whatever those coaching points that they give me.”

Like this one on encroachment/offside. Miller has liked to take chances at the snap to get a millisecond of an edge. A myth, Fangio told his team one day. We had 60 sacks with the Panthers in 1996 and we jumped offside four times all season.

“Every player is going to have an assignment and a technique on every play,” said Staley, a rising coach under Fangio who came from Chicago with him. “If you can master those two things, then your beautiful instincts can take over. What Vic has taught Von—and with Vic, you’re talking about the Bill Walsh of outside linebackers, he’s had Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Khalil Mack—is, ‘These are parts of your game we think can get better. And it will lead to more for you.’ That’s not a knock on Von. It’s a compliment. There’s another gear he can get to. And to Von’s credit, he has had a refreshing humility about being coached.”

Said Fangio: “Von’s been excellent, receptive from the beginning.”

The Broncos, coming off the 11-21 Joseph era, have been harped on by Fangio about the little things. Denver was seventh last year in turnover margin in the NFL; excellent, really, considering the top six made the playoffs. But the offense stumbled all season, and the lack of discipline on both sides (30th in penalties) crippled consistency. You’d think a defense with the bookend rush of Miller and Bradley Chubb and a secondary led by the great Chris Harris Jr., could make up for that, but they were 22nd in explosive plays allowed. Fangio watched tape of the season and couldn’t believe all the defensive breakdowns.

Fangio, getting acclimated to Denver over the past few months, has been to a few Nuggets and Rockies games. He loves talking to other coaches. Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce and his staff attended Saturday’s practice.

“The details of each sport need to be tended to,” Fangio said, asked about lessons from his baseball manager friends Bud Black and Joe Maddon, and those in other sports. “And there’s team organization, team morale, maintaining the structure of a team where the individual is promoted so much. I like watching all games. Seeing the other games just solidifies to me that fundamentals is what wins. In a basketball game, a guy doesn’t box out correctly, and the other team scores on a putback. Baseball, they miss a cutoff, a run scores, you lose by one and it’s a huge play. Fundamentals is ultimately what causes you to win and lose.

“I think the other thing, and this has really been the case with Von, is players want the truth. Joe Maddon told me: ‘If I tell the truth to a player and he doesn’t like it, he’s gonna be mad for a couple days. If I lie to the player and he figures that out, he’s going to be mad at me forever.’ And rightfully so. We’re in this business to make people better, not gloss over things.”

At practice Saturday, the Denver radio host/FOX broadcaster/former NFL guard Mark Schlereth looked out at Miller during practice on a broiler of a Colorado morning. “I’ll make this prediction: Von’s sack numbers will go down, but he’ll be a better player at everything, and he’ll open it up for other guys on the defense. Derek Wolfe could have a career year with Von and Chubb being better at the total game. Von is like the Matrix; the things he can do athletically are not of this world. But now what I think Vic has done is impress on him that there’s no more freelancing. If one guy on the defense freelances, he f—- us all. Plus, we have to get out of this business of equating sacks with total success of a pass-rusher. It’s nonsense. Von can get 12 sacks and be the best pass-rusher in the league—playing the right way, he opens it up for 10 guys to make plays, and for this to be a complete defense.”

It’s a balancing act for Miller, who told me he wants to break Bruce Smith’s all-time sack record. Interesting numbers:

  • Bruce Smith, after his eighth NFL season, had 92 sacks entering his age-30 season. He finished his career with 200 sacks.
  • Miller, after his eighth NFL season, has 98 sacks entering his age-30 season.

So Smith got 108 sacks after his 30th birthday. “That’s encouraging, definitely encouraging,” Miller told me—but he also said he, like Fangio, is not going to make proclamations. Miller has become friends with Smith, who came to Miller’s Pass Rush Summit this year and spilled everything he had for Miller.

Ask those who have played with Miller and those who coach him now, and they’ll tell you he likes to be coached, and coached hard. If Miller takes it all in, Denver will be far better on defense, and the pressure on Joe Flacco to lead an explosive offense will be lessened. Miller knows what’s on his shoulders. It’s only the pressure of the 2019 Broncos season. He’s okay with that. Just a gut feeling here: Miller’s smart; he majored in Poultry Sciences at Texas A&M and has a big chicken/turkey production facility in Texas. He had a good presence at the Kentucky Derby doing TV for NBC with Dylan Dreyer on the network’s pre-race show. He gets it, though, that he needs to keep the big thing the big thing.

“I do a lot of stuff good,” Miller told me, “but the thing I do best is play football.” Fangio’s counting on that.

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These statistics prove DeAndre Hopkins is the NFL’s best receiver

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It was notable last week that the Madden NFL 20 game gave four players a near-perfect rating of 99: Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, Bobby Wagner and DeAndre Hopkins. Donald is a no-brainer, Mack nearly one, Wagner as consistent a player as there is in football, and Hopkins—well, I dug into him a bit, and I love the honor bestowed by the Madden people. Hopkins is real, and he’s spectacular.

Let’s compare Hopkins to the all-world Julio Jones. The raw numbers paint a slight edge for Jones in 2018:

Jones: 113 catches, 1,677 yards, eight touchdowns, 104.8 receiving yards per game.
Hopkins: 115 catches, 1,572 yards, 11 touchdowns, 98.3 receiving yards per game.

The deeper numbers, per PFF:

• Jones dropped eight passes. Hopkins dropped none, which, since PFF began keeping official drop stats in 2006, was the most sure-handed season by far a receiver has had. No receiver in the last 13 years has 110 or more catches and zero drops in a season.

• Hopkins saw a “catchable but inaccurate” pass thrown his way 46 times in 169 total targets (27.2 percent of his targets), and he caught 35—meaning he caught 76 percent of all catchable but difficult passes. Jones had far fewer “catchable but inaccurate” balls thrown to him, just 23, and caught 14 of them. That’s 61 percent of balls caught by Jones on challenging throws.

What does it mean? Hopkins had a tougher job catching balls from Deshaun Watson than Jones had in dealing with Matt Ryan, and Hopkins did a more efficient job on the tough catches than Jones.

So Hopkins had far fewer drops than Jones, and he made far more tough catches.

Case closed: The best wide receiver in football in 2018 was Hopkins, and the Madden game recognized it.

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