The crummy pass-interference rule seems doomed. But I’ve got an idea how to save an important part of it.
Where things stand now: The weekend before the start of the combine is usually the weekend we start hearing about new rules and tweaks from the league office and the eight-man competition committee. In Indianapolis on Sunday, the committee began meetings with one rule hanging over the league: the 2019 rule that turned into a weekly conflagration around the league—offensive and defensive pass interference calls and non-calls being reviewable.
After conversations with coaches, others close to the process, and one person close to officiating over the past month, I can’t see the rule surviving in its current form, and maybe not at all. What happened last year, clearly, was there was a different standard to overturn calls either made or not made on the field that passed 31-1 by club owners at the March NFL meetings. In short, there had to be assault and battery on a receiver three or four seconds before the ball arrived for no-flag to be turned into a flag. (I jest, but not by much.) The rule became a sideshow, a joke, surely because the NFL wanted to discourage coaches from throwing challenge flags and making the games challenge-flag-filled. But the result of it was that the league looked foolish for passing a rule it didn’t enforce.
The rule was passed in 2019 on a one-year trial basis. I just don’t see 24 owners (and their football people) agreeing to pass such a haphazardly enforced rule again in 2020. No one in the league in any position of authority is saying it’s doomed in the current form. It’s just a feeling I get that passage now is unlikely. We’ll see. Competition committee chairman Rich McKay told the Washington Post’s Mark Maske in Indianapolis on Sunday, “I think we all saw the frustration that we all had during the year. And I do think it began to get better. But I want to see it all and the total picture and not deal from emotion.” Hardly an optimistic forecast.
So this is my idea: Let’s say owners get to the league meeting in Florida in late March, and the league sees no way to get a three-quarters vote for the rule as is. (Likely.) The impetus for this rule was to provide a fail-safe for plays like the one in the NFC Championship Game 13 months ago. With 1:49 left in the fourth quarter of a 20-20 game, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees threw to wideout Tommylee Lewis inside the Rams’ 10-yard line, and defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman slammed into Lewis clearly before the ball arrived. No flag. The non-interference call forced the Saints to kick a field goal. The Rams tied it with a field goal to force overtime, and the Rams won in overtime.
Let’s leave the fail-safe in place. Create a rule in, say, the last three minutes of a game to prevent a catastrophic play like the one in the title game. Allow the New York officiating command center to ride herd on the last three minutes of every game, and allow them to call for a review of calls either made on the field that look shaky, or calls not made that look like they should have been flagged.
The amount of time is malleable. If it’s four minutes, okay. If it’s two, okay. (I’d probably rather have three, four or five, because games can be determined on a big call with four or so minutes to go.)
I wish the rule could have worked. But I see the league’s reticence to see the game slowed with challenge flags. Given that the league (and probably a majority owners) doesn’t want the rule in its current state, there’s still a way for an amended rule to save games from ending with a terrible call or non-call affecting the outcome in the waning seconds. The league should strongly consider it.