By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — As a species, human beings are not the best at adapting to change. As sports fans? Forget about it. We’re all basically cave dwellers.
As such, when leagues take steps to change the sports we know and love, our reflexive response is often one of protest, disgust and rage.
With that being established, though, it’s time for us all to face a hard truth: The NFL’s new replay review rules for pass interference … don’t appear to be all that bad.
Sure, such a stance flies in the face of our human nature, and it also ignores years upon years (decades upon decades, maybe) of poorly thought-out decisions that end up playing out so badly that they end up being remembered forever as embarrassments. The MLB All-Star Game determining home field for the World Series, the NHL’s foot-in-the-crease rule, and the NFL’s multi-million-dollar/multi-year predetermined investigation and legal fight over a violation which was never proven to have occurred come immediately to mind.
And just as surely, when the NFL hastily turned pass interference penalties — called, missed, or imaginary — into plays that are now subject to challenge and review, we all reacted accordingly. It appeared, on its surface, to be an overcompensation for a once-in-a-lifetime screw-up that robbed the New Orleans Saints of a trip to the Super Bowl, and it looked like it could open a Pandora’s Box of issues that could fundamentally change the sport as we know it.
But after releasing a short video on Thursday, it appears safe to say that, for the most part, the change will be … mostly fine.
It’ll take some getting used to, of course, but coaches are still only given two challenges during a game (plus a third if both challenges are successful). This should result in limited use of the coaches’ challenges, because a failure to get an overturn would prove costly.
That left the final two minutes of each half up for debate, and with the potential for almost every single pass to be reviewed by a replay official, the NFL has set some ground rules to limit the potential of the final two minutes of every football game resembling the final two minutes of every basketball game.
In a video with a boppy beat to get you excited, the NFL said that there will be a “stricter criteria” for sending instances of potential pass interference to replay review. Such reviews will only be initiated if there is “clear and obvious visual evidence” seen in footage from the game’s broadcast cameras. Last week, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio wrote that replay officials will only be watching “the real-time play and/or full-speed replays” to make such judgments.
Theoretically, that means that play won’t be stopped after every snap for a frame-by-frame breakdown to discover whether or not a defensive back held a receiver’s jersey just a little too tightly, or if a receiver pushed off ever so slightly before going up to make a catch.
Theoretically, it means that outside of Nickell Robey-Coleman annihilating Tommylee Lewis in the open field or Luke Kuechly straight-up tackling Rob Gronkowski in the end zone***, the booth shouldn’t get involved in stopping play for replay reviews.
Theoretically, that seems … fine.
Now, are there potential issues? Sure. Of course. But you should note: There are already 10 million and one issues with the league and its rules, so it’s not exactly an enlightened position to note that potential problems can be found in the new setup. If the new rule brings more bad than good, then it’s a positive step forward.
The biggest possible problem will come from the area that’s received the most attention since this whole idea came to light: Hail Marys. In the “unwritten” section of the rulebook, the standards for pass interference have generally been relaxed when it comes to 40-plus-yard desperate heaves into the end zone in the waning seconds of the first half or fourth quarter. It’s not exactly prison rules out there … but it’s close.
There was some talk this offseason of the NFL excluding such plays from the new replay review rule, but that’s ultimately been pushed aside. A Hail Mary to decide a game in the final seconds is no different from a five-yard out on first-and-10 with 1:52 remaining in the second quarter, at least as far as replay review is concerned.
That’s sure to upset someone somewhere, and it may end up swinging a game or two in the 2019 season. (The 2017 Patriots would not have hated the rules being enforced on Hail Marys, you know. Though that clear-out of Chris Hogan would have been illegal contact downfield, and not PI, and thus not reviewable, so that’s still a moot point.)
But with a replay review rule like this one now in place, some obviously botched calls are going to get fixed. It may come at the expense of a superfluous review or two taking place for each team over the course of the season, but that’s a very small price to pay if it means that clear injustices are corrected in a matter of minutes.
***Though the Saints-Rams incident will get all the attention, the Kuechly-on-Gronkowski play would be a fascinating case study for this change. As you may remember, the official nearest to the play actually threw a flag, because a penalty had clearly been committed, but referee Clete Blakeman apparently convinced back judge Terrence Miles to say that no penalty occurred. The flag was picked up, Blakeman announced that there was no foul on the play (even though one of his officials clearly disagreed), and the men in stripes jogged off the field.
Under the new rules, a replay official would have told Blakeman — preferably before he made a beeline for the tunnel — that the play would be subject to replay review, thus postponing the end of the game and thus (in 99.9 percent of simulations) giving the Patriots a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
In such an instance, would and will the replay official have the fortitude to in essence overrule the officials on the field in such a critical, high-stakes, and highly visible moment? And would Blakeman — a man who expressed supreme confidence in his decision even after seeing a replay of his clearly botched decision — going to be able to handle that decision? That is, one supposes, when the rubber will really meet the road with this new rule change.