PHOENIX — The NFL presented a unified front Tuesday night at the owners meetings after approving a significant rule change for the 2019 season.
The league announced that the new rule, to include offensive and defensive pass interference calls in the instant replay system, passed by a 31-1 vote. The vote was 8-0 among members of the Competition Committee. The rule is in effect conditionally, for one year.
Commissioner Roger Goodell said the rule is the result of hard work, compromise, and “getting it right,” making sure that the controversy from the end of last season’s NFC Championship game doesn’t happen again. The NFL has data to show that pass interference plays are among the most impactful in a game.
“Everyone in there finally got to understand through a long process and a lot of discussion, everyone wanted to get it right,” Goodell said. “Some had to remove themselves from long-shared views.”
But watching this process unfold Tuesday evening at the Arizona Biltmore, you got the distinct sense that the rule change didn’t just come about because it was the right thing to do.
The new rule was approved in a bit of haste. It was the fourth iteration of the rule — dubbed Rule 6C — and it was drafted just hours before it was approved.
And this is not an insignificant rule. It breaks new ground for the NFL. For the first time, a coach can challenge a penalty flag that wasn’t thrown. The NFL calls it “putting a flag on the field,” and the league has been staunchly opposed to it for years.
But Saints coach Sean Payton and a handful of other coaches were relentless over the three days of meetings and successfully encouraged the owners to approve it.
“It felt like we had to go around the block twice, then we arrived at the right address,” Payton said.
Was it that the owners wanted to get it right? Or was it that they wanted to sleep in their comfy beds Tuesday night?
This new rule, essentially, was a coup by the 32 NFL head coaches, led by Payton.
The proposal was the last item on the docket. The meetings usually last from Sunday to Wednesday, but this was a quiet week with few major items. Everyone was ready to wrap up and go home by Tuesday evening.
Payton and the coaches knew they had time working on their side. They skipped the golf outing Tuesday afternoon. They put pressure on the Competition Committee and the owners to pass a rule. They wouldn’t let them leave Arizona until they did.
“It was messy at times,” said NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent. “It was disruptive.”
The Competition Committee, whose eight members are a cross-section of owners, coaches, and players, went from being majority opposed to 4-4, to 8-0 — all within a day.
Many owners switched allegiances rather quickly, too. The meeting to approve the rule lasted about 20 minutes. Bengals owner Mike Brown was the only vote against the rule change.
Falcons CEO Rich McKay, chairman of the Competition Committee, used to be staunchly opposed to such a rule. But he changed his mind Tuesday, crediting Payton and the committee for coming up with a quick solution.
“We were able to make sausage in one day, which is good for us,” McKay said. “I give the coaches a lot of credit.”
But this is one rule that the NFL shouldn’t have just crammed through the legislative process. The ability to challenge penalties — and non-calls — represents a sea change. High-definition cameras and super-slow-motion replay can make any play look like pass interference.
“The rule better go both ways lol,” quipped Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore on Twitter.
That rule better go both ways lol— The Gilly Lock (@BumpNrunGilm0re) March 27, 2019
Payton said the coaches were mindful of one negative consequence of this rule.
“We didn’t want games ending with coaches throwing challenges on Hail Marys,” he said.
So in the final two minutes of a game, only the instant replay booth can initiate a review for pass interference, just as with all other plays.
But what if on replay, the referee sees a slight tugging of the arm and throws a flag for defensive pass interference on a Hail Mary? And the offensive team then wins the game from the 1-yard line? Then the NFL is no better off than it was last January, when the missed DPI call cost the Saints a shot at the Super Bowl. Over-officiating the game is just as bad, or worse, as under-officiating it.
“This isn’t going to be perfect always,” Payton acknowledged. “The 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 to and say they’re the most impactful for us.”
Fortunately, the rule was approved on just a one-year, conditional basis. Everyone will monitor the rule, and the owners will vote on it again next March.
But ultimately, everyone got what they wanted: Payton and the coaches got their expanded replay reviews, and the owners got to go home a day early.