PHOENIX – After a couple days of haggling between NFL coaches and owners, the league added pass interference to plays that are subject to replay review.
In a 31-1 vote Tuesday evening, NFL owners approved adding pass interference calls and non-calls to the plays that coaches can challenge in the 56 minutes of a game and a replay official can call to review in the final two minutes of each half and overtime.
It came after a long two days of meetings where the league’s head coaches were pushing to add an eighth official as an eye-in-the-sky to call penalties and correct wrongly penalized plays in real time as a member of the officiating crew, rather than in a replay capacity.
The adopted change was a compromise to give coaches the ability to correct egregious errors on pass interference, such as the obvious penalty officials missed in the final minutes of the New Orleans Saints loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship game.
Mark Murphy, the Packers’ CEO and a member of the NFL competition committee that recommends rules changes, said the league is purposely moving slowly as it adds to the replay system.
“The reason we focused on pass interference, we all wanted to walk before we started to run, and we didn’t want to do too much,” Murphy said after the vote. “When you look at the statistics, those calls have a huge impact, especially defensive pass interference, huge impact on the game. To focus there made a lot of sense.”
Murphy said one of the reasons the league made pass interference as part of the challenge system, with challenges taken out of coaches’ hands in the final two minutes of the game, was because of the difficulty of officiating Hail Mary plays on replay. Murphy appeared to share the concern that too many games would end on a replay review of a incomplete Hail Mary where the offense was hoping to get a pass-interference call on a challenge.
“I don’t think that would have been good for the game,” Murphy said.
In a meeting Monday, the league’s head coaches debated at length a host of rules changes related to replay and pass interference, and they determined they wanted the eye-in-the-sky ref. That official would watch the TV feed in a stadium booth and be wired in to the referee via a headset as a regular member of the crew. He’d be able to make calls in real time on obvious penalties that officials on the field missed, or have them pick up flags on penalties called that were obvious mistakes.
“I do like that idea,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said at the coaches breakfast Tuesday morning, before owners scuttled the idea in favor of the rule they passed. “Especially for the egregious, the obvious ones that may or may not get missed and everybody, the fans are screaming at the television for a flag, whether there is one or not. Yeah, I think certainly that can add some value to our game.”
Murphy, though, said coaches will get something similar to the eye in the sky, because they now can challenge pass interference calls and non-calls. As before, they get two challenges a game, and if both are successful they get a third.
Murphy thinks there will be more consistency on the pass-interference calls with this system, because the replays will be determined in consultation with the head of NFL officiating, Al Riveron, in New York. In effect, the same person will be making the call on every play. The eye-in-the-sky would be handled by a separate booth official in each stadium.
The new rule is for one year only, and owners will review whether to retain it next year, and possibly add to it as well.
“Really at the end people realized we couldn’t get everything,” Murphy said. “Starting narrow, there’s probably going to be as we go forward – and this is for one year only, so we’ll be able to evaluate – there’s probably a good chance as we go forward there will be other calls where people say, ‘Geez, he was offsides, that was really clear,’ but that’s not something you can challenge now.”
Murphy also said he was in favor of a proposal to allow teams to try to convert a fourth-and-15 rather than attempt an onside kick when trailing late in games. But owners voted that down.
Because of recent changes in the rules for alignments on kickoffs, which were implemented for player safety, the percentage of successful onside kicks when they were expected late in games dropped about in half last season. Only four of 52 expected onside kicks were successful in 2018, according to Murphy.
“I did like (the fourth-and-15 option),” Murphy said. “It’s a little gimmicky. But that’s something that we’ll have to continue to monitor.”
Owners also tabled until meetings in May a vote on whether to allow both teams to possess the ball in overtime under all circumstances. Currently, if the team that receives the kickoff in overtime kicks a field goal, the other team gets a possession, but if the first team scores a touchdown the game is over.
Murphy said he prefers the rule as it is.
“You probably would have had to add more time to the overtime,” Murphy said, “and then you end up kind of back where we were, concerned about injuries. And particularly if you’re a team that plays a full overtime and has to turn around and play a Thursday game.”