By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In response to missing the most obvious instance of pass interference of all time, the NFL worked quickly to institute replay review to hopefully prevent a recurrence of the infamous play that marred the end of the Rams-Saints NFC Championship Game.
It’s a pretty straightforward system. It should fix some obvious wrongs. But it may bring about some unintended consequences.
That much became pretty clear in a story shared by NFL Network’s Rich Eisen, who filled in to write Peter King’s usual Monday morning story for NBC Sports. Eisen discussed a presentation made by NFL head of officiating Alberto Riveron to the NFL Media Group’s annual talent symposium. Riveron played clips for the audience, all of whom cover football for a living. He then asked those in attendance whether or not they believed pass interference had been committed. The responses shared by Eisen shined a light on just how difficult this is going to be for NFL officials to navigate on a play-to-play basis.
“For about 20 minutes, Riveron screened a half-dozen plays for OPI and DPI and asked us to decide what to do in real-time just as his officials will have to do. There wasn’t consensus in the room once. Not once.”
He went into some more detail:
“Riveron would show a sequence involving a possible offensive pass interference, pause the play and ask the room if we would throw a flag for OPI. Half of the room would say ‘yes’ and the other half ‘no.’ Then, he would ask us if there was no penalty called, would we, as the replay official, put a flag down on the field for OPI. Half the room said ‘yes’ and the other half of the room said ‘no.'”
Despite the lack of clear consensus on most plays, you can bet that these will be the plays that end up getting dissected and picked apart by the people who are employed for the sole reason of dissecting and picking apart such plays.
While every football fan in the world (outside of Rams fans) wanted to see the correct call made in New Orleans on that Sunday in January, the reality is that there won’t be much unanimity when it comes to the reversal of most plays in the forthcoming NFL season.
One such play that has at least caught the ire of Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is the incompletion to Brandin Cooks in Super Bowl LIII, a play that immediately preceded the Stephon Gilmore interception that for all intents and purposes ended the game.
Eisen wrote that Riveron said that if the new replay review rules had been in place last season, then Gilmore would have been hit with a pass interference penalty, provided the Rams had the good sense to challenge the play.
“Had the new replay protocol for interference been in place then, would the league want replay officials to throw a flag on a humongous play in the biggest game of the year? You bet it would. Riveron confirmed it; this play was the penultimate piece of video shown in his presentation.”
The competition committee had previously stated this offseason that the play should have been penalized, but Riveron’s confirmation showed the type of impact the new rules could have. In that instance, if Sean McVay challenged the play for pass interference, the Rams would have had a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line in a game which the Patriots led 10-3.
That’s a play that has been discussed and debated already, and by the letter of the law, it was pass interference.
Despite the clear evidence of the defensive back “significantly hindering” the receiver’s ability to catch the ball, it does seem that not every football fan believes a flag needs to be thrown in such an instance. Florio would certainly be one of them.
“Yes, Gilmore hooks Cooks’ left arm, but Cooks still pulls his arm up and puts it in position for the reception, with only a legal blow delivered by Patriots safety Duron Harmon (and/or the impending blow from Harmon) causing Cooks to lose control of the ball,” Florio wrote. “So is it clear and obvious that Gilmore significantly hindered Cooks? I don’t think it is.”
Florio expressed further concern with Riveron’s own inconsistency in applying the rules.
“Based on his mishandling of multiple catch/no-catch rulings in 2017, concern lingers in league circles regarding Riveron’s ability to apply relevant standards consistently and accurately in real time,” Florio wrote. “The explanations provided by Riveron in connection with the Super Bowl LIII and Chargers-Chiefs plays potentially amplifies the concern that the effort to prevent another Rams-Saints outcome will result in other situations involving far less clear and/or obvious interference calls and non-calls being overturned, when they just shouldn’t be.”
Perhaps the Gilmore/Cooks play is not the best example to make such a case, but this does seem to be a fair conclusion, based on the seeming glee with which Riveron declared some plays to be candidates for pass interference.
And to be fair, offseason hysteria often proves fruitless once the regular season begins. Remember, if you can, all the way back to 10 months ago, when the football world was in a tizzy over a new helmet rule which was very transparently just a PR ploy and never actually had a chance of coming into play in games that actually mattered. While the NFL may have botched its handling of what constitutes a catch in the past year or two, the ultimate impact of both of these “major” rule changes has been minimal.
At the same time, concern here is warranted, based on Riveron’s own spotty history of applying the catch rule. The challenge for the NFL will be to apply the new rule to fix the obvious mistakes while avoiding a frame-by-frame breakdown of every minor bit of contact on every passing play. It does seem possible to do that … but it’s not unreasonable in the least for anyone to lack faith in the NFL’s ability to actually pull it off.