MOBILE, Ala. -- Last weekend’s missed pass-interference call that almost certainly changed the outcome of the NFC championship game has roiled the NFL like few previous officiating controversies, in a league that has seen its share.
The petitions and lawsuits launched from New Orleans, where the Saints lost a Super Bowl berth after they were denied a chance to run the clock nearly down to zero in regulation before kicking a chip-shot field goal to win, are unlikely to amount to anything. But when the competition committee convenes at the annual league meetings in Arizona in March, it likely will discuss making pass interference reviewable.
We know this because Saints coach Sean Payton is on the competition committee and he assured us of it, in the wake of the play that caused Payton to run down the sideline waving his reading glasses. Los Angeles Rams corner Nickell Robey-Coleman not only blasted receiver Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived on third-and-10 from the Rams' 13-yard line, he hit Lewis helmet-to-helmet, with a minute and 45 seconds remaining. Payton said afterward that NFL officiating czar Alberto Riveron commiserated with him on this, and even pointed out the helmet-to-helmet component, in a phone call right after the game, though the league – perhaps concerned about legal repercussions – has made no official statement.
The Rams went on to win in overtime and they will face the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta,. But in Mobile, where the league has gathered for Senior Bowl week, almost no one is talking about Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard overtime field goal. People are talking about pass interference, and review, and what might be done.
San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan, coaching the South team here, said that missed PI “happens a lot. You get used to it as a coach. You just gotta deal with it sometimes.”
But Shanahan also said he would support making it reviewable. He said he thinks, with all rules, “when things are obvious, and everyone in the world knows, that you do whatever it takes to get it right.”
That sounds simple, but it really isn’t. Unlike, say, whether someone fumbled, or a ball crossed the goal line, pass interference is subjective. There are all sorts of instances in which defensive players and receivers are in contact before the ball arrives, that generally aren’t viewed as interference. Everybody thinks Lewis was interfered with – Robey-Coleman even said he thought he was committing PI, he just figured dealing with the result of the penalty would be better than letting Lewis catch the ball inside the 5 – but how often is agreement going to be so universal?
That is why many NFL people are uncertain a change will be made, and they have different ideas about exactly what form change should take.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has said he is in favor of making everything reviewable, but retaining the idea that coaches get a finite number of challenges.
Raiders coach Jon Gruden, who is coaching the North team at the Senior Bowl, said he spoke to Payton the day after the loss. Gruden could empathize, having also been the Raiders coach in January 2002, when the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots advanced to the AFC championship game on the strength of the little-observed “tuck rule,” which negated a Tom Brady fumble against Oakland. The tuck rule eventually came off the books – 11 years later.
“I was involved in a playoff game that ended in quite dramatic fashion. So is he, now,” Gruden said. “It’ll sting forever.”
But Gruden is known to be concerned about the game getting too bogged down in review. When asked, he did not explicitly endorse a change.
“It’s a disappointing way to lose a game. But I don’t know what the ramifications of that are going to be,” Gruden said. “We all saw it. We all know there will be some action taken, I’m sure.”
Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane said he would have to see what the proposed rule might be, before deciding whether to endorse it. Beane noted that the Canadian Football League allows review of pass interference. In the CFL, an overruled challenge results in the loss of a timeout, and a coach must have a timeout remaining in order to use his one challenge per game.
“You’d have to do something everybody’s going to be comfortable with,” Beane said. “I think if you’re looking to shorten the game, and now you’re going the other way with it, it may turn people off.”
An NFC general manager, who didn’t want to be quoted by name, said: “I think there will be support for allowing your challenges to be used on PI, but competition committee will have a big say.”
There were other missed calls in the game, including the grasping of Rams quarterback Jared Goff’s face mask, but no other call so directly and immediately informed the outcome.
Riveron’s two predecessors, Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino, discussed the matter this week on Fox Sports’ “Last Call” show. Pereira said he thinks the time has come to “take a big overall look” at adding an official stationed in a booth who can initiate review whenever he sees something egregious – just as a concussion-spotter upstairs can call down to the sideline to get a player checked. Blandino wondered if it would be fair to treat judgment calls this way, substituting one official’s judgment for another’s.