By Rick Sarro
The New Orleans Saints and its legion of Who Dat fans were hoping for vindication or even an admission of guilt; they were hoping for — no, demanding, — a rule change from the NFL’s recent owners meeting in Arizona.
The belief was the influential competition committee, the head coaches and owners would only offer up lip service to any serious proposed revisions to replay rules specificially aimed at pass interference. Saints head coach Sean Payton, a member of the competition committee, and owner Gayle Benson were there front and center to carry the banner — not just for consideration but hard concrete action to address the most infamous No Call by referees in the Saints-Rams NFC Championship game.
Payton must have worked the phones before the meeting and then did a full bull rush behind closed doors to get the attention of the rest of the league over not only the Saints being robbed of a Super Bowl berth but also the blatant inability of the rule book to fix such an egregious No Call and the worst example of complete referee incompetence in the history of the NFL.
What appeared to be a radical rule change proposal with not much support turned into a headline-making shift in how the game’s most subjective play — defensive and offensive pass interference — will now be officiated.
I did a triple take when the NFL announced by an overwhelming 31-1 vote that both defensive and offensive pass interference can now be challenged by coaches and reviewed by officials — not only when the call is flagged on the field but also when no flag is thrown, as in the case of the Saints’ No Call against the Rams.
I know all Saints fans are claiming victory over this unexpected chain of events, and it does offer a bit of belated satisfaction over the heartbreak anyone who wears the Black and Gold felt after the NFC title game.
Put down those Roger Goodell voodoo dolls, box up all those yellow flags used as Mardi Gras throws and the anti-Super Bowl 53 T-shirts, because fans need to realize this decision can cut both ways.
This pass interference rule change will open a Pandora’s Box of much more heated debate, on field problems, strategic use of challenge flags and huge game shifts intended or not.
Don’t get me wrong — I was as critical as any of the No Call that was clearly pass interference; the incompetence of not one but three refs during the play; and the NFL’s delayed response to the severity of the whole calamity of errors.
I called for at least two of the refs to be fired immediately and even questioned how the league could turn a blind eye to the fact that three of the game officials lived in southern California near Los Angeles and how that simple fact invited skepticism.
I demanded some form of replay change and recourse when there was clearly a missed and blown call that literally altered the final score and determined which team would win.
I didn’t expect or want the NFL’s coaches and owners to step over the cliff as they did with this rule change and invite even more trouble with the most difficult and subjective on-field call in the game.
The Monday after the Saints-Rams debacle, I proposed what I feel is a clean and simple fix, and that is to empower a league replay official in New York who is charged with monitoring a specific game. If that NFL official sees that any play or any call is so clearly missed, either with a flag or no flag, he or she can communicate with the game’s head referee that a replay is needed and the play can indeed be overturned or changed by what New York sees or doesn’t see.
Former NFL head of officials and current Fox Sports rules expert Mike Pereira came out and proposed a similar scenario to handle those rare situations when the on field refs blatantly miss a call or are not in the best position to see or make the correct decision, which occurs more than you think.
Commissioner Roger Goodell finally addressed the No Call situation during his State of the NFL media session before Super Bowl 53 in Atlanta. He repeatedly reminded everyone that the game was not officiated by robots and there will always be the human element.
Translation: Don’t expect changes to the replay system and expect human errors as just part of the game.
Well, something happened between then and the owners meeting, because Goodell nearly did a 180 on the subject.
“I told the owners we need to get to a place, and I felt strongly we should have OPI and DPI (offensive and defensive pass interference) and that we should be able to throw flags (that were not thrown on the field during a play),” said Goodell, as he explained his change of heart on including interference in the replay protocol.
“Everyone in there finally got to understand through a long process and a lot of discussion; everyone wanted to get it right. Some had to remove themselves from long shared views,” added Goodell.
What he didn’t say is the possible pressure the NFL was feeling one way or another from the ever-increasing legal sports betting business or from the well established not so legal betting interests to ensure games were not affected by blown calls that could easily be reversed.
Once Payton and his cohorts on the competition committee sent the measure to the full ownership, the fun began. Against heavy odds and outside opinions that nothing would change, the owners voted 31-1 to put DPI and OPI in the replay handbook.
You have to understand there are a number of powerful NFL owners and coaches who have been dragged kicking and screaming into replay reality over the past 20 years. Over that time, any expansion of replay use was achieved over many years of hard-fought battles, with some bloodshed and compromise. That’s why this abrupt move was so surprising and shocking, especially with the landslide vote.
Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee, said they dug deep into a lot of analytics and scenarios before eventually deciding on the rule change that, in short, allows coaches to throw challenge flags on interference — be they flagged or not on the field. The replay officials in the booth can also decide if an interference should be reviewed in favor of a penalty or to reverse a penalty called on the field, but only in the final two minutes of a half or fourth quarter and during all overtime periods.
This is a huge move, because interference penalties are the most costly and impactful in yardage, change of field position, shifts in momentum, first downs and continuing drives.
There are smart football people running this show, and I am sure they discussed and examined all the game possibilities, even though Pereira and a number of former players, coaches, executives and retired refs begged to differ.
I can think of two situations in the Pandora’s Box that could complicate interference replay.
What will happen on those long Hail Mary passes when it’s a jail break of mass humanity converging on the ball in or near the end zone? If no interference is called, which is usually the case, coaches can use a challenge flag and cross their fingers for a favorable reversal that can swing momentum before half time or win the game with seconds on the clock.
The other scenario is more about coaching tactics. Coaches will still only have two challenge flags, and may not challenge an iffy play in the second quarter, deciding instead to hold on to at least one of their flags for a possible interference challenge that may not help their cause. In hindsight, their hedged bet or game strategy could affect the outcome.
In short coaches, will be more selective and judicious in their challenges.
I am sure every Monday morning quarterback who has reservations over the rule change has come up with many more game situations that make interference replay seem worrisome.
Payton and his look of utter shock and disbelief on the sideline moments after the No Call late in that title game against the Rams was the poster child and impetus of this interference replay movement.
He fought and politicked for a rule change that would right the wrong that befell his Saints. And he was right to do so. “It’s great when we can arrive at what we think is a good change. We would not have any of these (rule changes) on the docket had it not been for one play,” Payton said.
“So, my point is, I think we need to do a better job thinking forward and preparing, regardless of what’s currently out there. Where do we want to be in 2028? It’s a good way to work and come backward. I think we do that in a lot of other things. But I feel like at times, we come in here each year and we’re in a little bit [of] a reactionary mode,” Payton concluded.
As a Saints lifer, I was stunned and heartbroken as any fan after the ridiculous refs’ blunder. I sincerely believed it cost New Orleans an appearance in Super Bowl 53. It was a mistake of historic proportions that Goodell and the rest of the NFL took months too long to address.
That said, I think the NFL overreacted and overreached with the scope of this replay rule change.
Put interference in the replay scope and don’t fear to put a flag on the field after the fact. But let a truly unbiased pair of eyes initiate the review and decide what’s right or wrong and take any hint of gamesmanship or trickery out of the equation.
The interference rule change is on a one-year trial experiment for the 2019 season, so you can bet it will be on the owner’s hit list again next spring.
Let the debate begin again.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm broadcast on channel 4 on Suddenlink.