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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Keep imperfect instant replay challenge system in case of odious error

Officials discuss a ruling during the first half

Officials discuss a ruling during the first half of an NFL football game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the New Orleans Saints, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton) Credit: AP/Stephen B. Morton

Frustrated by the lack of seemingly obvious pass interference infractions that aren’t overturned by instant replay challenges? Mystified by how the newly introduced coaches challenge for replay — the first time the NFL has ever ventured into the world of penalties with its instant replay system?

Join the crowd.

If we’ve learned one thing through the first six weeks of the season, it’s that the league is unwilling to reverse calls that may look obvious to you and me — and the coaches who throw the challenge flag — but don’t rise to the level of “clear and obvious” that the NFL demands.

The new rule that allows coaches to challenge plays on which pass interference is called — or not called — was adopted in March on a one-year basis. Intended to correct the obvious play similar to the non-call that occurred near the end of the Saints-Rams NFC Championship game in January, the system has met with mixed results so far.

In fact, mixed results might be putting it kindly. With each challenge that goes unrewarded, the outcry grows louder about how ineffective the system has been.

And while it’s still a work in progress, this could very well be a one-and-done when owners decide at their annual meetings next March whether to continue with a more permanent version of the challenge system.

“Let’s let the season play out,” Falcons president Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, said at this week’s owners meetings in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “This is a brand-new rule, one that our coaches, fans and officials are getting accustomed to.”

One thing we’ve learned so far: The threshold for changing a call — or a non-call — is much more than we had anticipated. But it’s no accident that so few of the calls have been changed as a result of replay. That’s what the league wants.

“The rule was put in place, the emphasis in the room [at the spring meetings in Arizona] was that we want to get the egregious ones overturned,” McKay said. “The way the rule was written, it’s got to be an obvious error and have to result in substantial hindrance.”

And that’s where the debate comes in: Just what constitutes an obvious error and a substantial hindrance?

Take a play in last Thursday night’s Giants-Patriots game, when Golden Tate appeared to be interfered with near midfield. No flag was thrown on the incomplete pass, but coach Pat Shurmur challenged the call. Replays showed contact was made with Tate before the ball arrived from quarterback Daniel Jones, but the play stood. No penalty.

“I thought I had a solid chance to get it,” Shurmur said afterward. “But we see that replay doesn’t overturn much.”

He’s right about that.

There have been 44 stoppages for reviews related to pass interference, but only seven have been reversed. Coaches have been successful on just four of 37 challenges, including only one of the last 25.

“We knew going in that the standard is a higher standard [for pass interference],” said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. “We have to keep reminding the coaches that the bar is higher than the normal [replay] review.”

The bottom line: Coaches run a greater risk of losing a challenge and being docked a timeout by challenging a borderline interference call or non-call. That most likely will result in a reduction of pass-interference challenges now that the coaches have seen that the standard is much higher. And, in the end, it could result in the league scrapping the challenge system for interference.

“This is the first time we’ve lived in the subjective world, where we’re going to have a subjective rule, and we knew that would lead to disagreement,” McKay said. “The one thing about replay that has served us well is in an objective world [about a catch, whether a player crossed the plane of the end zone, etc.]. And even then, we can argue sometimes. When you get into the subjective world [of penalties], we knew it was going to be open to discussion.”

There’s also plenty of discussion about officiating overall, especially after the Packers’ 23-22 win over the Lions Monday night, in which a key penalty against Detroit defensive lineman Trey Flowers for illegal hands to the face proved decisive near the end of the game. Vincent admitted the officials got it wrong on the play.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged the gaffe, but also correctly pointed out that officiating controversy has been a part of the game for years. As in all the years the NFL has been in existence.

“I’m close to 40 years [in the NFL], and there’s always a two- or three- week period where there’s an intense focus on [officiating],” he said. “You never want to see a game where people are talking about officials afterward.”

Replay couldn’t have changed that call Monday night, and replay hasn’t had as big an impact on pass interference as some would have hoped. There are sure to be calls to remove interference from the replay system. In fact, there already are. But I’m not ready to abandon the system just yet.

Why? Because we haven’t been in a situation like the Rams-Saints game, when there is a play that is so consequential that it means the difference between going to the Super Bowl or going home. If replay can correct a non-call like the one Rams cornerback Nickell Roby-Coleman got away with at the Superdome, then it will be worth it.


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