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ben volin | on football

After last year’s pass interference debacle, NFL didn’t have appetite for major rule changes

NFL teams won't have the chance to attempt a fourth-and-15 play instead of an onside kick this coming season.
NFL teams won't have the chance to attempt a fourth-and-15 play instead of an onside kick this coming season.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The NFL’s 32 owners tabled a couple of rule proposals for 2020 on Thursday at a virtual league meeting that would have been well-received by the public had they been agreed to:

Allowing a losing team to have a fourth-and-15 play instead of attempting an onside kick, and creating a “sky judge” to help the officials make the right calls on the field.

But the owners made it clear they do not have an appetite for major changes this year — not with the COVID-19 pandemic threatening the season, and not when the league “failed miserably,” as NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent recently put it, with the implementation of the pass interference/instant replay rule last year.

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The owners only approved three new rules for 2020, all minor in nature and related to health and safety and game mechanics. The pass interference/replay rule, eliminated after just one season, was a teaching moment for the NFL.

“When we’re short on time and we can’t come to a resolution, we learned some valuable lessons — not to rush,” Vincent said Thursday.

Teams also will no longer be able to manipulate the game clock by committing “multiple dead-ball fouls” while time is running — something that Bill Belichick called a “loophole” when he employed it against the Jets in October. It was later used against the Patriots in the playoffs by the Titans.

The fourth-and-15 proposal from the Eagles could be a great addition someday. It is a safer play than the onside kick, a more exciting play, and new kickoff rules have rendered onside kicks extremely difficult to recover.

And the “sky judge” proposal from the Ravens and Chargers seems like an obvious solution to fixing clear officiating mistakes, such as the non-call of pass interference in the Rams-Saints NFC Championship game from two seasons ago.

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Los Angeles' Nickell Robey-Coleman breaks up a pass intended for New Orleans' Tommylee Lewis during the second half of the 2018 NFC championship game in New Orleans.
Los Angeles' Nickell Robey-Coleman breaks up a pass intended for New Orleans' Tommylee Lewis during the second half of the 2018 NFC championship game in New Orleans.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

But after last year’s pass interference/replay debacle, there was no way the NFL was going to institute any significant changes this offseason, especially given the unique circumstances.

“Rules like this take time," Falcons president Rich McKay, the chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, said of fourth and 15. “It took us a long time to make a change like the extra point. This is a major change, in giving the offense the ball on fourth and 15. There’s a lot of things to talk through.”

McKay is correct in that the NFL often changes its rules at a glacial pace — except for last year. The NFL was going to vote down a pass interference/replay rule until Saints coach Sean Payton staged an uprising at the March meetings and prevented the billionaire owners from getting on their jets back home until they voted yes. It marked the first time that the NFL allowed instant replay to be used for penalties, and it was hastily thrown together without considering many consequences.

The application of the rule was, not surprisingly, a disjointed mess, and the NFL scrapped it after just one season.

Fast-forward to Thursday. The fourth-and-15 proposal generated the most discussion, and it has some momentum. This marked the second straight year that the owners debated this concept, after the Broncos proposed a similar rule change in 2018.

What's the future of the onside kick?
What's the future of the onside kick?Roger Steinman/Associated Press

But the NFL hasn’t vetted all of the consequences yet. So this is not the year to be instituting a rule that represents a major change.

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“Every day you hear something new that we may not be thinking about,” Vincent said. “Which causes us to pause, to say, ‘You know what? Let’s table this.’ ”

For instance, would teams be allowed to score a touchdown? Currently, a team that recovers an onside kick can’t advance the ball.

Would a defensive team be allowed to return a turnover for a score? Currently, the defensive team can’t advance an onside kick recovery.

And would it make it too easy for a team to pull off a comeback, especially if the fourth-and-15 play would be an untimed down?

“There is that theory, you don’t want to make the comeback too easy,” McKay said. “You’ve got to talk about, is that too much of a new increased advantage given to this team that just scored? We’ll look at it.”

And the NFL isn’t keen on using a “sky judge” to fix officiating errors yet, either. From the league’s perspective, the NFC Championship game blunder was an unfortunate but extremely rare error. And using instant replay to change calls on the field, or allowing the replay judge to make penalties calls from upstairs, can create more problems than it solves.

Rich McKay, the chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, had some answers on Thursday, but many questions still remain.
Rich McKay, the chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, had some answers on Thursday, but many questions still remain.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

“What we learned last year is we’re going to take our time and make sure we’ve fully vetted what those details are, and not just get caught up in the concept of the sky judge,” McKay said. “We don’t want to kill the flow of the game. There’s no question last year the flow of the game got impacted.”

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But the NFL does plan at least to use the preseason (if there is one) to experiment with new guidelines that give referees “more areas to seek consultation” with the instant replay official. It’s definitely not a sky judge, and does not involve penalties, but at least it provides more opportunities for the referee to get help from up above. The referee will have to ask for that help from the instant replay official.

“This is not a penalty thing. It’s game administration, complete/incomplete, touching a loose ball,” McKay said. “But the referee remains in charge and it’s the referee’s decision, and that’s why we wanted referees to initiate this.”

The fourth-and-15 and sky judge proposals weren’t banished forever like the pass interference/replay rule. They were just tabled for this year, as the NFL deals with more pressing matters related to the pandemic.

Both will likely be debated next year and could eventually be implemented. But after last year’s pass interference/replay debacle, the NFL doesn’t have the appetite for major changes.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin