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Owners allow Competition Committee to tinker with pass-interference reviewable rule

NFL owners gave authority to the Competition Committee to revise the rule it passed in March allowing offensive and defensive pass interference to be subject to coach’s challenges or replay official reviews. The approval gives the ability for the final rule to be changed with certain limitations.



NFL owners gave authority to the Competition Committee to revise the rule it passed in March allowing offensive and defensive pass interference to be subject to coach’s challenges or replay official reviews. The approval gives the ability for the final rule to be changed with certain limitations.

The ownership’s rule change approval in March was against the Competition Committee’s initial recommendation to not make subjective plays, such as pass interference and other penalties, subject to review. That recommendation was in line with the commandments established under the challenge-based replay system since it was implemented in 1999, which the committee held fast to for two decades. To head off a myriad of team proposals to rejigger the replay system, the Competition Committee reversed course and offered two proposal options for reviewing fouls. The fallout from the controversy in the NFC Championship Game still fresh in everyone’s mind, there was a tailwind behind those who implored owners to just do something as a fix.

Rather than following the methodical approach that the Competition Committee takes — examining all aspects and ripple effects of a rule change through discussion and video review — the owners allowed a significant rule change to be made by brute force. A cabal of head coaches forced the Competition Committee’s hand into Proposal 6C — or third revision to the initial proposal — which made any passing play subject to review for called or uncalled pass interference. Satisfied with the result of the modification, owners and coaches returned home knowing they at least just did something.

By short-circuiting the process for head coaches — a group not known for their overwhelming success rate in replay challenges — it left other stakeholders out of the equation, namely the officiating staff and players. 

To understand how and why the owners are tinkering with the rule, it is necessary to see what the major issues are, or what would have been part of the Competition Committee’s due diligence in the normal rule change process.

The rule change as approved in March would have opened the floodgates for review in situations where the replay official has jurisdiction: scoring plays, turnovers, all plays after the 2-minute warning, and all plays in overtime. While the resumption of play is held for the all-clear from the replay official in the case of scores and turnovers, all passes under 2:00 would need extra scrutiny from the replay official between downs. The replay official would have to examine the receiver’s action from 1-yard off the line of scrimmage. (In essence, replay would have to do this for all receivers in order to follow the rule.) Then, the defender’s actions must also be viewed from the point when the pass is in the air. Is there any contact, even if it is mutual handfighting? Is there a call to see if the receiver was within the permitted “bump” zone? Is there a judgment call if the ball is in the air? Was it uncatchable? The replay official cannot use discretion to let some of these go; play must be stopped for a more thorough review of the play.

Every. Single. Pass. Under 2 minutes in the half.

Replay officials are now essentially in the director’s chair this season, able to select from 9 different camera angles in their stop-down process, rather than waiting for the TV network to show the relevant angle. This “configuration change” can be both a blessing and a curse. It provides more information to the replay official in a condensed amount of time, but there are concerns that replay officials may not all be equally adept at manipulating the controls of several angles, rather than reviewing only one.

Moving ahead to May, the owners actually decided to authorize the Competition Committee to make the final modification to the pass-interference reviewable rule. The Committee and the Football Operations department must discuss the rule with 32 coaching staffs through “conference call sessions during the first week of June” before advancing a final rule change, further empowering the group responsible for the mess in the first place. The owners limited the committee to any or all of the following options that would not require a follow-up vote from the owners:

  1. Allow coaches to challenge pass interference after the 2-minute warning and in overtime
  2. Exclude pass interference from a replay official’s review after the 2-minute warning and in overtime (unless it is otherwise reviewable as a scoring play or turnover)
  3. If a coach’s challenge should be limited in certain play situations

The third item is a bit nebulous, but it can be restricting only certain aspects, such as prohibiting reviews of Hail Mary passes. (How that rule would be written is anyone’s guess!) There are also additional ripple effects, such as when another reviewable element under 2:00 is also reviewable for pass interference, and when they cancel each other out. These rules would then be set mere weeks before officials meet in Dallas for the annual clinic to hash out rules interpretations. Presumably, the rule book would already have handwritten revisions at that point.

The original rule was for one year only. Any revisions “between rules meetings” according to the rules automatically expire at the conclusion of the season. A vote of at least 24 of the 32 owners is required in March 2020 to continue any of the replay modifications, which, minus one rule provision, has a real chance to not act in order to ignominiously kill it. If you had a problem with the handling of the roughing-the-passer rule last season — we certainly did — the pass-interference rule is setting up to be one of the most dysfunctional rule changes in history, a veritable train wreck into a Dumpster fire.

But, at least they can say that they did something.

Image: John Geliebter/Philadelphia Eagles

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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