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Upon almost endless review, the NFL got it right with a late-developing plan to expand replay review

NFL referee John Parry (132) watches an instant replay on a Microsoft Surface tablet.
NFL referee John Parry (132) watches an instant replay on a Microsoft Surface tablet.

PHOENIX - After much debate (and upon further and further review) the non-call for pass interference that marred the outcome of the NFC Championship Game has inspired a significant expansion of the NFL's replay review rules after all.

In an upset of a move that was not thought likely at the start of the NFL annual meeting here at the Arizona Biltmore Resort, the league's owners Tuesday approved a rules change to allow for reviews of non-calls for both defensive and offensive pass interference — exactly the replay process the Saints desperately wished would have been in place two months ago when they lost 26-23 to the Rams in the Superdome.

The vote was 31-1 in favor, far greater than the 24 votes necessary for passage, and the new system was adopted for only a one-year trial period in 2019. It will be re-evaluated next year. Cincinnati was reportedly the lone vote of dissent against the change.

Credit a united and persistent front by the NFL's 32 coaches — which was reportedly encouraged and backboned by the Patriots' Bill Belichick and the Chiefs' Andy Reid — for this change being made in the face of a lack of support from half of the league's eight-man Competition Committee. That body proposed two other replay review expansions that did not address non-calls, and mostly took a can't-do approach to remedying the Saints particular scenario.

"I give the coaches a lot of credit," Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay said. "We were able to make sausage in one day. This is the first time we'll have a foul such as DPI or OPI reviewed, whether there's a flag on the field. What the rule does is put OPI and DPI into our (replay review) system with no change, for a flag or no flag. We've never done that before.

"We knew all along what the trade-offs would be. Really the discussion was going to be, can we get 24 votes to put a foul on (the field when it was not called). That was the challenge. The coaches came in with the idea we'd like to do this, but we're not sure how. Now we add these two calls into the system."

McKay said four undisclosed Competition Committee members were not in favor of adding the ability to review non-calls of any sort under replay expansion, but changed their votes as the coaches and the rest of the committee and ownership pushed for passage.

"Felt like we had to go around the block twice to get to the right address," said Saints coach Sean Payton, a Competition Committee member who obviously was the most adamant proponent of expanding the scope of replay reviews to include non-calls on defensive and offensive interference, the two most impactful penalties in the NFL according the league's data. "I think we got it right.

"I don't think it will impact the way we watch games. (But now) there's two more calls that we're going to work to get right, and I think that the room felt real good about that. It fits the system we know and our fans know."

Upset that the league didn't display enough urgency to find a replay remedy for an obvious missed defensive pass interference non-call like the one that damaged the Saints' Super Bowl hopes with 1:49 left in regulation of the NFC title game, the coaches met for almost three hours Monday night to come up with their own proposal to amend the replay system and then lobby for the issue in a late afternoon meeting with club owners.

The coaches constructed a proposal that allowed a coach's challenge for interference penalties not currently covered by replay, but in the end agreed to stick with a replay-booth initiated challenge in the final two minutes, as has been the accepted system for years. Reviews in the last two minutes of each half have to be called for from replay booth and not from a coach's challenge.

By expanding the role and scope of the replay official, the coaches in essence got a limited version of the "Sky Judge" system that they were in favor of and have been lobbying for since the NFL Scouting Combine. The replay official now has the power to correct egregious mistakes made on defensive or offensive pass interference calls or non-calls in the final two minutes of each half — a sizable leap for a league that has long wanted to avoid bringing judgment calls under the umbrella of replay review.

"I believe that the coaches were on the right track (in their Monday night meeting)," said Raiders coach Jon Gruden, at Tuesday morning's coaches/media breakfast. "I believe that the replay official, his role could expand. I think he could be able to personally beep down to the (referee) when there is an obvious or indisputable error. Maybe there are 13 guys on the field. You can't give them a fifth down. Perhaps even the play that cost the Saints….. I do think that guy up there, without interrupting the game, can right an indisputable wrong. I believe that should happen."

Said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who was in favor of finding a way to address what happened to the Saints in the replay system: "Every club and the league wanted to get these plays right. I think it was very important. Officiating is never going to be perfect. Will this solve every problem? No, but don't let perfect get in the way of better. Some people had to remove themselves from long-held views to get this right."

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