PHOENIX — The NFL’s coaches and owners arrived at the league meetings over the weekend with a difficult problem to address. A missed call in the NFC Championship game might have sent the wrong team to the Super Bowl, but to address that error the league would have to do something it has long resisted: allow the replay booth to put a penalty flag on the field where there wasn’t one originally.
By Tuesday evening, that resistance had faded and the league approved rule 6C on a one-year basis by a vote of 31-1. The rule makes defensive and offensive pass interference reviewable plays, whether or not a call is made on the field.
Coaches, especially Sean Payton, whose Saints were on the short end of the blown call in the NFC title game, led the charge in passing a rule that had seemed more likely to fail at the start of the meetings.
“We were able to make sausage in one day,” said competition committee chairman Rich McKay, president of the Falcons.
McKay said that input from Payton and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett advocating for the need to get calls right, even if it means putting a flag on the field, helped build consensus. The competition committee was split at 4-4 on Monday, but voted 8-0 in favor on Tuesday.
New England’s Bill Belichick and Kansas City’s Andy Reid stood up during a Monday meeting and emphasized the need for the coaches to come to some agreement. That led to two more hours of debate that helped some work through their issues with the proposal.
Payton said after the rule passed that he sees the change as good for football, not just a personal victory, though he acknowledged earlier Tuesday that he can’t get in an Uber without the driver bringing up the title game.
“I think it’s more of that ‘owe it to the game’ that we have responsibility, and really, I mean that,” Payton said. “This isn’t going to be perfect always, and we know that. The mere shape of the ball tells you it’s not going to bounce the same way. But these are fouls that the analysts are able to point and say, ‘Hey, they’re the most impactful fouls.’ I think we got it right.”
McKay said that, according to league data, half of the 50 most impactful calls last season were defensive pass interference, and that a large quantity of impactful missed calls were offensive pass interference.
The original proposal was altered somewhat to reach a near consensus. The Eagles suggested that automatic replay review be expanded to include scoring plays or turnovers negated by a foul, and the Broncos suggested that any extra point or 2-point conversion be automatically reviewed. Both provisions were adopted in the rule that passed.
Between those additions, the convincing words of coaches and competition committee members, and the willingness of some owners to change their minds, a rule that was considered a long shot days ago passed.
“Instant replay has been a topic for a long, long time,” McKay said. “I give the coaches a lot of credit.”
There were several other rules changes that passed on Tuesday.
The league made the kickoff changes implemented during the 2018 season permanent. Those adopted rules prevent the kicking team from getting a running start, eliminate wedge blocks, and force the kicking team to line up evenly spread out instead of clumped together. The intended affect is to reduce concussions on kickoffs, which were down 38 percent in 2018 from the 2015-17 seasons, according to NFL research.
The owners also voted to eliminate blindside blocks, another player safety measure. NFL Football Operations posted on Twitter that one third of all concussions on punts were caused by blindside blocks. Under the new rule, any forcible contact by the blocker with his head, shoulder or forearm is prohibited if the player initiates the block while moving toward or parallel to his own end line. In the past, it was a penalty to use a blindside block only if it was targeted to the head or neck area.
“This particular play is the most significant,” said NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent. “We talked a lot about the replay, but the blindside block? It ends careers.”
The owners also redefined what happens when both teams foul after a change of possession, the new definition stating that the team last in possession retains the ball and the fouls offset, where the possessing team’s foul would be enforced if it was the only foul. It also simplified the application of scrimmage kick rules for missed field goals and voted to allow teams to elect to enforce an opponent’s personal or unsportsmanlike conduct foul committed during a touchdown on the succeeding free kick or attempt.
Down to defeat
One rule change proposed by a team — in this case the Broncos — was defeated on Tuesday.
The Broncos’ proposal was to allow teams once chance per game, in the fourth quarter only, to go for a fourth-and-15 play from their own 35-yard line rather than kick off after a score. If the team converted, it would retain possession.
The rule was proposed because, under the current kickoff rules, onside kicks are basically noncompetitive plays because of where players line up.
It seemed like the proposal had some momentum when the competition committee voted, 7-1, in favor in the first round of voting, but the owners shot it down. A rule change needs 24 of 32 owner votes to pass.
Giants owner John Mara had no problem acknowledging he was the lone no vote in the competition committee and asked reporters rhetorically, “What are we, the Arena Football League?”
Apparently, Mara’s fellow owners agreed that the proposal was gimmicky.
Belichick was asked about the fourth-and-15 proposal at the coaches breakfast Tuesday morning and didn’t offer much of an opinion.
“We’ll talk about all the rules here with the coaches this morning,” he said. “We’ll see what everybody has to say.”
The Chiefs’ overtime proposal, seen as a reaction to Kansas City’s loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, was tabled until the owners meet again in May.
The Chiefs proposed a change that would ensure both teams get the ball in overtime, eliminate the OT coin toss, and eliminate overtime in the preseason. After the Patriots won the coin toss in the AFC Championship game, they scored a touchdown on their first possession and won without the Chiefs ever getting to touch the ball.
Tabling the proposal until the next set of league meetings, which coaches don’t attend, gives the Chiefs time to amend the proposal. According to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who is on the competition committee, the expectation is that they’ll simplify the proposal.
“There are a lot of provisions to the proposal,” Tomlin said. “It’s not just black and white in terms of that element of it, so we’ll see if it gets amended in some way and then I’ll express my opinion.”