PHOENIX — NFL owners took a major and somewhat unexpected step Tuesday to expand instant replay as an officiating tool and address the gaffe that denied the New Orleans Saints a spot in this past season’s Super Bowl.
Owners voted, 31-1, to make pass interference reviewable by replay. Interference calls and noncalls by officials can be reviewed after a coach’s challenge in the first 28 minutes of each half and by booth review in the final two minutes of each half. The change was ratified on a one-year trial basis and takes effect in the 2019 season.
“I think we got it right,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
Payton and other NFL coaches advocated for making pass interference reviewable by replay in the aftermath of the officiating debacle in the NFC championship game in New Orleans. Officials missed a blatant pass interference penalty and an illegal hit by the Los Angeles Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman on the Saints’ Tommylee Lewis late in regulation. That helped the Rams to prevail in overtime and advance to the Super Bowl.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told owners Tuesday morning that pass interference should be made reviewable. Nudged by Goodell and with coaches pressing their case, the owners provided more than the 24 votes necessary to ratify the modification.
It was a more sweeping replay change than what had been proposed by the league’s competition committee, which had proposed making pass interference, roughing the passer and illegal hits on defenseless players reviewable by replay under the current coach-challenge system, but only in cases in which the officials already had called a penalty.
Competition committee members and other NFL leaders had said there was too much resistance to allowing the league’s officiating department in New York, via the replay review process, to assess an interference penalty that had not been called by officials. They fretted that a proposal to allow noncalls to be reviewed and changed by replay could not get the necessary 24 votes among the owners.
But a system that did not encompass noncalls would not have changed the play in New Orleans if it had been in effect then. And with the league under pressure after the furor that followed the Saints-Rams noncall, attitudes changed quickly on the final day of the annual league meeting.
“Replay is to get it right,” Goodell said. “People compromised on long-held views because they want to get the system right. They want to get the plays right.”
Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the chairman of the competition committee said: “Any time you deal in the replay world, 24 votes is not quite as easy as you think. … We were able to make sausage in one day, which is good for us. I think we ended up in a good place.”
The framework of the coaches’ challenge system does not change. Each team still gets two replay challenges per game and is awarded a third if he gets both of the first two right. Offensive and defensive pass interference can be reviewed. A team cannot challenge interference in the final two minutes of each half, in part to avoid having coaches issue such challenges on Hail Mary passes on which there can be a jumble of players jostling for position in the end zone.
Roughing the passer and illegal hits were not made reviewable. McKay and Goodell said they could envision further expansion of replay in the future.
“It wasn’t able to correct something that we wanted to have corrected in the past,” Goodell said. “That, to me, was the driving force, at the end of the day. … It’s the old saying: Don’t let perfect get in the way of better. … Everybody wanted to get it right.”
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said earlier Tuesday that he would be “very much” disappointed if all that was ratified was a system that failed to make noncalls on interference reviewable.
“That would be very disappointing because that would not address what happened in the New Orleans game,” Harbaugh said Tuesday morning. “First of all, we’re already behind because this could have been addressed three or four years ago when these proposals have all been made. These aren’t new proposals, OK? … If we’re going to at least react and improve, as opposed to getting out in front … if we can’t react and get things fixed, then shame on us.”
Coaches vented their frustration during a meeting Monday with the competition committee about the reluctance they sensed at that point to make major changes to replay and continued Tuesday to state their case. Payton and Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin are members of the competition committee.
“I know we as coaches are very spirited in our discussions involving the game, and particularly replay and the rules of the game,” Tomlin said earlier Tuesday. “But I don’t view it as a divide.”
The Washington Redskins had proposed making all plays in a game, including calls and noncalls, reviewable under the coaches’ challenge system. In previous years, that proposal had been made by the New England Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick. Other proposals made this year by individual NFL teams would have added calls and noncalls of certain penalties to the list of reviewable plays.
“We got to a good place,” said Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations. “It was messy at times.”
The competition committee in previous years had been firmly opposed to making any judgment calls by officials reviewable.
“We had to go around the Grand Canyon and do a few laps around the Southwest here,” Payton said of the deliberations that led to the final outcome.