There was a pretty significant foreshock in the league when the NFC Championship Game ended with Greg Zuerlein’s overtime kick splitting the uprights 57 yards away, ending the Saints season right there. It was the start of a seismic shift in influence.
The Saints coach was rightfully angry when he addressed reporters following the game, knowing that a miscall by the officials on a crucial third down in regulation now gave his opponent the chance to tie, and ultimately win, the game.
“For a call like that not to be made, man, it’s just hard to swallow,” coach Sean Payton said. He relayed that he spoke to senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron, who admitted the crew erred in not calling defensive pass interference, which would have all but sealed the Saints victory.
And then the NFL brass went into duck-and-cover mode.
Referee Bill Vinovich, who was not in a position to view what his downfield officials ruled, offered no specifics on the call after the game. He actually is not allowed to evaluate another official’s call to the media; he may only provide interpretive feedback on the rule in question.
Riveron never addressed the call publicly. The owner of the Saints vowed to “aggressively pursue changes in NFL policies to ensure no team and fan base is ever put in a similar position again.” Into the 10th day, the commissioner finally addressed the non-call, admitted that it should have been a foul, even deferred to Payton’s retelling of Riveron’s words as being official, and acted like it was normal business course. It was a weak response; one which gave Payton strength.
Payton has a seat at the very influential Competition Committee, one of two coaches on the eight-member panel. This is the sausage-making operation of the rulebook and policies. They examine film, study potential changes to the rulebook, weigh the circumstances against precedent, and make measured corrections when necessary. It is not wont for kneejerk reactions or forging into new territory recklessly.
Payton actually scored a small victory in that the committee did something it never had before: advance a proposal to place a subjective foul call into the replay system. Perhaps it was a compromise, perhaps it was a gambit for the Competition Committee to control the narrative at the owners meeting, scuttling their own proposal to show owners that there should not be a quick fix. But, the fact that the committee blinked gave Payton even more power.
He then addressed reporters at the league meeting on matters of officiating, concluding, as he has in the past, that officials should only work for the league and not have outside jobs. Such a move would not increase the time officials spend in-season on their officiating job — most already put in 40-50 hour weeks for the NFL — and it would significantly dilute the talent pool of officials who would drop everything to work in the NFL without a fallback. He also was opposed to the mixed-crew assignments in the postseason, a merit system that advances individual officials on their performance, and not by crew. He also suggested officials should not have to wait for their fifth season to be qualified for a Super Bowl, and that officials should be allowed to work consecutive Super Bowls. All of these provisions are in the collective bargaining agreement with the officials’ union, so they cannot be changed until after the 2019 season when the contract ends.
Given his influence in the Competition Committee, Payton had a little more swagger when he addresses officiating, a tangential part of the committee’s reach.
In this environment there is one missing element, a peripheral adviser by the name of Joel Bussert, who recently retired from the NFL. Bussert was the institutional memory and the silent navigator for the Competition Committee. When there was resistance to instituting helmet contact rules, it was Bussert that pulled out film from the 1950s showing players making heavy contact without using their helmets. Very few people knew of Bussert, but his influence was enormous. He was well respected because his only agenda was to improve the game.
There is no Joel Bussert at these meetings to maintain order. In this environment, there are less checks and balances to someone advancing a specific agenda beyond the neutral review of the Competition Committee. As frustration set in among coaches during the first full day of deliberations at this year’s meetings, they forged a short circuit around the Competition Committee. Although coaches do not have any standing at these meetings to advance proposals, they did so anyway, as Payton, along with Chiefs coach Andy Reid and Patriots coach Bill Belichick, called a 2-hour meeting to push through reform with the Competition Committee. Yes, everything should be up for discussion, but this coach’s cabal used its unanimity as a functional supercommittee over the Competition Committee.
Not only did the coaches get the Competition Committee to reissue their own proposal to allow called and uncalled pass interference calls to be subject to review, but also they advanced a proposal to create an omniscient observer, known as a SkyJudge position in the nascent Alliance of American Football, to correct certain “clear and obvious” judgment calls by the crew. The SkyJudge position, a creation of the NFL’s former head of officiating Mike Pereira for the AAF, was reviewed by the Competition Committee this year and unanimously rejected. (Oddly Payton and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would have voted both ways as members of the Competition Committee.)
In the end, the Competition Committee, formerly known as the Rules Committee and dates back to 1932 when the NFL split off of the college rulebook, suffered a significant blow to its authority. They will still serve as the primary conduit for change in the NFL rules, until there is any organized resistance allowed to run unchecked. Any such resistance would have the roadmap already written, and as long as they have Coach Peyton on their side, they have a very powerful ally.