The NFL may be on the verge of a dramatic change in its instant replay system, a move that could have sweeping implications on the game.
Owners gathered for the league’s annual spring meetings in Phoenix this week will vote on the expansion of replay to include pass interference and roughing the passer penalties, two officiating calls that were at the center of controversy in last season’s playoffs.
For the first time in NFL history, the league’s influential competition committee has put forth a proposal that would allow challenges to pass interference and roughing the passer calls. It is a major step for the committee, which in the past has contemplated pushing for the use of replay in determining the accuracy of those calls but never got to the point of recommending rules changes.
The fear among the committee had been opening up subjective officiating calls to the scrutiny of replay, a slippery slope that could theoretically subject the sport to even greater scrutiny and put more pressure on officials who are already burdened with the most complicated set of rules in professional sports. But after the outcry following back-to-back playoff games last January, the committee felt compelled to act.
The proposed rule would have actually have had no bearing on the biggest call — or, more specifically non-call — in last year’s playoffs. Late in the Saints-Rams NFC Championship Game in New Orleans, an obvious pass interference penalty on Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman was not called by the officials. The play forced the Saints to attempt a field goal to give them a 23-20 lead, but the Rams tied the game on their next possession and won in overtime. The new rule would not allow for non-calls to be changed after the play, but it’s entirely possible that officials would be more inclined to throw flags on close calls if they knew replay might clear up any doubts.
The other call was a roughing the passer penalty on the Chiefs in the fourth quarter of their AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. Chris Jones was flagged for hitting Tom Brady in the head late on a third-and-7 incompletion but replays clearly showed he did not make contact with Brady’s helmet. The Patriots, who beat Kansas City in overtime, were given a first down and later scored on the drive.
Now the question is whether there will be enough owners to go along with the proposed changes. Any rules medication requires the approval of 24 of the league’s 32 owners. And already there is one influential team owner who appears ready to vote against any major changes.
Steelers president Art Rooney II told reporters on a conference call Friday that he is “not really excited to have replay expanded, and we’ll approach it with that in mind. We have a lot that’s reviewable in the games and not that excited about adding to that list.”
That doesn’t mean Rooney’s mind won’t change when the competition committee presents its recommendations to the owners. But Rooney and other longtime owners have been reluctant to go down the path of reviewing interference penalties.
“We know how tough replay is to get 24 votes for a league that from 1992 to 1998 didn’t have replay,” Falcons president Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee, said Friday. “We welcome the discussion, and we feel like this is a good way to expand it. We have data that shows these are the most impactful plays and the ones we can change.”
And why not add a mechanism for correcting non-calls like the one in the Saints-Rams game?
“There’s been a real reluctance of putting a foul on the field,” said the league’s director of operations Troy Vincent, a former NFL cornerback. “That is something from active players to coaches, all across football personnel.”
One idea that Vincent previously thought had merit was adding an eighth official to be placed above the field of play who had the authority to call penalties. At the scouting combine, Vincent said adding a “skybox judge” might be a way of correcting calls, but no competition committee members expressed support for such an idea in subsequent discussions.
Now it’s up to the owners.
They either open up the replay system to include pass interference and roughing the passer calls. Or they continue to leave themselves open to criticism about controversial officiating calls that often go a long way toward determining the outcome of games.