NFL rules changes should be about bettering the game, not personal gripes
In the NFL, rules aren’t made to be broken. They’re made in response to personal grievances and gripes.
The self-serving interest and conflict of interest behind NFL rules-making was on display after New Orleans Saints coach and NFL Competition Committee member Sean Payton helped ram home a controversial new rule that makes defensive and offensive pass interference reviewable via instant replay last Tuesday at the owners’ meetings in Arizona. Payton and the Saints blamed a missed pass interference call in the NFC Championship game for costing them a trip to the Super Bowl.
The NFL shouldn’t be in the business of making rules on the basis of personal hardships. That’s no way to run a multibillion-dollar business or compile a rule book. But it’s not unusual. The NFL has a lengthy history of self-serving rules recommendations.
You can go back to former Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian championing a renewed point of emphasis on defensive holding and illegal contact when he was a member of the committee in 2004. It was in direct response to the Patriots beating the Colts in the 2003 AFC Championship game by making their receivers feel like they were running through the tumbler of a clothes dryer every time they tried to run a route.
The rushed replay rule, which was passed with political wrangling and backdoor maneuvering worthy of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, could have disastrous repercussions for the NFL this coming season. It will definitely have unintended consequences, as now the long reach of replay includes putting a flag on the field for pass interference where there wasn’t one. Outspoken San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman already has launched a direct broadside, saying this rule will allow the NFL to predetermine the outcome of games.
But the deeper issue I see is with rules changes and proposals that are raised by teams in an obviously self-serving manner. A rules proposal, which any team can make, is often to amend some rule that directly worked against them. You could rename the Competition Committee the Sore Losers Committee. There are too many conflicts of interest in constructing and amending a rule book in such ad hoc fashion.
Since the rule change was so obviously personal, Payton should have recused himself from the Competition Committee’s votes on the matter, which are a significant initial step in the process of birthing a rule change. (Ratifying a rule change requires 24 of the 32 owners’ votes.)
Hastily implementing this replay rule via an NFL coaches’ rebellion, led by Payton, was a mistake. But make no mistake, the Saints were wronged and robbed in the NFC Championship game when an obvious pass interference call on Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman went uncalled on third and 10 with 1 minute and 45 seconds left. The penalty would have given the Saints first and goal at the 5-yard line and allowed them to run down the clock before kicking the winning field goal. Instead, after swapping late fourth-quarter field goals, they lost in overtime.
That bad break sent Payton and the city of New Orleans into an apoplectic rage and an offseason crusade for justice at all costs. Now, the rest of the NFL must pay the price with a rule that wasn’t ready for implementation.
It’s fair to ask if Payton would have pushed this rule through with such urgency if the Saints had marched down and won their conference title game on the first possession of overtime like the Patriots did in Kansas City, instead of Drew Brees tossing an interception. Was this league business or Saints business for him?
Payton was shrewd enough from a public relations standpoint not to make it all about avenging the missed call. He referenced how a pair of controversial defensive pass interference calls that went in his team’s favor helped the Saints defeat the Steelers in Week 16, costing Pittsburgh a playoff berth. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is also a member of the Competition Committee. Still, no one was buying it.
As the Globe’s Ben Volin reported, the initial support for the rule wasn’t there from the Competition Committee, which makes recommendations to the 32-team membership. But as rules proposals evolved and arms were twisted and private jets idled, Payton got his way.
This is not the way the NFL should determine its playing rules, which can determine the job status of players, coaches, and officials.
The Saints aren’t the only NFL Final Four participant seeking redress for a loss. The Chiefs submitted a rules proposal to alter overtime, ensuring that both teams get an opportunity to possess the ball. The proposal did not pass. It was tabled. The Chiefs will try to marshal the votes for it at the NFL’s spring meeting, set for May 20-22 in Key Biscayne, Fla.
Yours truly is a bit biased on this matter as the uncredited father of the current overtime format. But allowing both teams to touch the ball in overtime is a worthy debate.
But does anyone believe that the Chiefs would be advocating for this rule change if league MVP Patrick Mahomes had gotten the ball first and led the Chiefs to the end zone in the AFC title game, sending Tom Brady home without a chance?
Therein lies the problem.
Rules, like the officials charged with applying them, are supposed to be neutral and objective. That’s hardly how the proposals of the Saints and Chiefs feel, no matter how well-intended or valid they may be. Making rules by revenge isn’t good policy.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots are not immune from this manner of rectification for past defeats.
Why does His Hoodiness want fixed cameras on the goal lines and end lines? Belichick and the Patriots got hosed on Champ Bailey’s interception return in Denver in the 2005 playoffs. Famously chased down by Benjamin Watson, Bailey appeared to fumble out of the Patriots’ end zone, a touchback. Instead, officials ruled the ball went out of bounds at the 1, and the Broncos scored a touchdown.
Remember when the NFL extended the goal posts 5 feet to 35 feet in 2014? That was a Patriots proposal dating back to Justin Tucker’s winning field goal in Baltimore in 2012 that Belichick went berserk over with replacement officials.
You can also loosely trace the 33-yard extra point, Belichick’s brainchild, to the 26-16 loss to the Broncos in the 2013 AFC Championship game. The Patriots were stopped on a 2-point conversion attempting to get within 8 with 3:07 left. They wouldn’t have needed a 2-point conversion to force a one-score game if Denver had missed one of its two extra points.
Rule changes are always going to be a part of the NFL. But the league should change the way business is conducted to make sure they’re in the best interests of the game, not the self-interest of a team licking its wounds.