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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