Of all the questionable decisions made by NFL referees during the 2018/19 season, it would be fair to say that the officials’ failure to call a blatant pass interference in the final two minutes of the NFC Championship Game was arguably the most egregious missed call of the year.
With just 1.49 on the clock and facing a 3-and-10 at the Los Angeles Rams’ 13-yard line, a correctly called pass interference penalty on that play gives the New Orleans Saints a first-down around the seven yard line and an opportunity to run out the clock before taking the lead with seconds to spare. And while it is often far too easy to blame the officials for a team’s loss, in the case of the crew working the game that day, there can be little doubt that their mistake cost the Saints a Super Bowl appearance and irrevocably altered the outcome of the 2019 season.
Understandably ashamed by this tarnishing of the post-season and the national media outcry that followed, the NFL has taken steps to make sure such a thing will never happen again this offseason. But in typical league fashion, attempts to amend instant replay rules to allow for a review of pass interference calls have not gone as smoothly as could be expected.
When the changes to the rules for 2019 were first announced during a league meeting back in March, the NFL unveiled a proposal passed by a majority of 31-1 in favour of expanding reviewable plays to include pass interference. However, a move to put that call in the hands of the coaches in the final two minutes of each half was met with push back from the teams.
Worried about an abundance of stoppages, while noting particular concerns about how a Hail Mary play should be viewed, the NFL hoped to limit the number of challenges by making it a coaches decision. But a final confirmation of the new rules proposal on Thursday is a clear sign that the league failed to find support for that amendment.
The responsibility for calling for a review of pass interference in the final two minutes of a half will now lie in the hands of the Replay Official, with added instruction that goes beyond the “clear and obvious visual evidence” policy that traditionally governs replay. As per the official press release from the NFL.
“After the two-minute warning in each half, and during an overtime period, the Replay Official will stop the game to initiate a replay review for pass interference under stricter criteria/guidelines than is applicable for other reviewable play types.”
What constitutes “stricter criteria” is anyone’s guess at this point in time, with the league conspicuously silent on the specific details of the new guidelines.
The belief here appears to be that the more obvious calls like the one in the NFC Championship Game will be corrected, while overlooking the fact that the call becomes a subjective one made in a short space of time with potentially limited visual help. In theory it sounds like a solution to the problem, but in practice, a recipe for disaster. Those who have witnessed the dramatic variance in refereeing standards around the NFL from week to week will have understandable concerns.
For those who backed the Saints at -3-points to beat the Rams backs in January, this rule change has come far too late to get you your money back, but there is at least some hope that a similar travesty will be avoided in the future if the league can get this right. And if the NFL could just find some competent full-time officials who are capable of applying the rules consistently, maybe they would be better equipped to make the right call when it first happens. Wouldn’t that be a revolutionary idea?