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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Pass interference just the beginning of expanded replay review

The Rams' Nickell Robey-Coleman breaks up a pass

The Rams' Nickell Robey-Coleman breaks up a pass intended for the Saints' Tommylee Lewis during the second half of the NFC Championship Game in New Orleans on Jan. 20.  Credit: AP/Gerald Herbert

Falcons president Rich McKay broke into a smile during a news briefing shortly after NFL owners resoundingly approved a measure adding pass interference to the list of plays subject to instant replay review. He grinned when asked why only pass interference — and not other penalties such as roughing the passer, personal fouls or other judgment calls — would be under the purview of replay.

“Twenty-four votes,” said McKay, chairman of the NFL’s competition committee. “Don’t underestimate 24 votes.”

McKay was referencing the number of votes required to pass any rules change. With 32 owners, it takes a three-quarters majority — or 24 votes — to enact a new rule. Start adding more calls than just pass interference, and McKay knew that was a nonstarter.

So, he and the committee went small — at least compared to what it could have been — to address one of the most important penalties and create the ability to get it right based on an instant replay review.

“Our feeling was let’s walk, jog, run,” McKay said.

But make no mistake: This is just the start.

With offensive and defensive pass interference now added to the list of plays subject to review, it won’t be long before more judgment calls become part of replay.

“Do I think that you’re going to see people express expansion in the future?” McKay said. “I would be naive to say [no].”

Credit the owners — who got a much-needed push from commissioner Roger Goodell before they sat down to vote — for adding one of the most important plays to a replay system that will now assist officials in getting it right. And it’s not just the one play that sparked the outcry that got us to the point — the non-call on an obvious pass interference near the end of the Saints-Rams NFC Championship Game. It’s a lot of calls that were either missed or ruled incorrectly that often changed outcomes of games.

McKay offered up the most salient stat to back up that contention: Of the 50 most impactful incorrect calls, as determined by the league’s officiating department, half of them were defensive pass interference. And there were several blown offensive pass interference calls as well.

The new rule doesn’t guarantee there won’t be mistakes, but it does address one of the most critical officiating calls in the game. And that’s all anyone can ask.

“It’s important to understand that this isn’t going to be perfect always,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, a member of the competition committee who was clearly burned by the non-call on Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman with less than two minutes to go in regulation. “We know that. The mere shape of the ball tells you it’s not going to bounce the same way.

“But these are fouls that the [NFL] analysts are able to point to and say they’re the most impactful fouls,” Payton said. “We got it right.”

They did indeed.

And before you complain that the new rule will automatically add time to games that are sometimes already too long, remember this: Outside of the last two minutes of each half, a coach must use one of his two replay challenges if he wants to protest an interference call or non-call. Inside of two minutes, the replay official will determine whether a play should be reviewed.

The coaches’ challenge has been a sensible compromise from the old replay system, where countless replay stoppages occurred and interrupted the flow of games. Limiting the number of challenges and taking away timeouts on plays that are not overturned is a meaningful deterrent to having too many reviews. Putting the replay official in charge during the final two minutes of the half — as he is with scoring plays and other calls — is also the right move, because it means that potentially game-altering officiating calls will be addressed.

“I personally believed it was the fact that everybody wanted to get these plays right,” Goodell said. “Replay is to get it right. Ultimately, people compromise on long-held views because they want to get the play right.”

The new system was approved on a one-year basis, and owners will review and assess how things went before deciding whether to continue. But it’s hard to see them going back at this point. If anything, there should be more calls placed under the umbrella of replay.

The idea here is to get as many correct decisions as possible.

The new pass interference rule is a sensible and consequential start.

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