Rejoice! For the second year in a row, a Steelers season that was totally compromised thanks to an official’s blunder was retroactively corrected by a rule change.
Actually, they don’t do that in the NFL—in any sports league, really. But one year after making a reception more about common sense and less about “surviving the ground,” the NFL announced last week that pass interference penalties, along with the ones that perhaps should have been called but weren’t, will be subject to replay review. This change, one that is on a one-year probationary period for the 2019 season, was made official at the annual owner’s meeting where the league’s competition committee also gathers each and every spring to bring us new rules that always seem to come a few months too late.
In case you haven’t studied the new rule, it will allow coaches to challenge plays where pass interference may or may not have been called. The good part of this rule—in my humble opinion, at least—is there won’t be an extra “Pass Interference Flag” provided for coaches to use in such situations. No. Instead, Mike Tomlin and his colleagues will be forced to burn one of the two challenge flags they get each game for things like catches.
Say, it’s early in the first quarter, and the Saints just had an initial drive kept alive by an egregious pass interference call on Joe Haden. Would Tomlin want to use one of his challenge flags right then and there, or would he want to save his challenges for a more critical time later on?
It adds an additional element to an already intriguing part of game-day strategy—to challenge, or not to challenge: that is the question.
I like it. Hey, you want to challenge pass interference—a rule that is a total judgement call? Fine. To be clear, I think it should be subject to review. Too many games have been altered one way or another because of these total judgement calls. However, the last thing the NFL needs is for EVERY questionable pass interference call—or non-call—to be subject to review. It’s one thing for every defensive back to have to hold his breath after each and every incomplete pass. It’s quite another for the officials to have to do the same...not to mention the fans.
And this is where I have a problem with part of the new replay rule for pass interference.
Picture this: New Orleans is facing a fourth and two. There are less than two minutes to go in the fourth quarter. If the Steelers hold here, it’s game over.
Drew Brees drops back, but his quick pass over the middle is broken up by Joe Haden. You hold your breath. I hold my breath. Is there any yellow coming into view? No. Whew! Sean Payton is out of challenges.
Unfortunately, since it’s inside of two minutes, the quick pass over the middle that admitedly was close, is now subject to automatic review by the officials. If the no call is turned into pass interference, well, Pittsburgh’s season is essentially screwed.
I know what you’re going to say. Yes, the Steelers may have actually benefited from this exact scenario last December, when Haden was called for pass interference (his second very questionable flag of the day) with precious little time left in the fourth quarter and the Steelers clinging to a four-point lead. Had the automatic booth review already been in place, Pittsburgh may have won this critical Week 16 contest and, ultimately, the AFC North.
You may be right, and I get that. Heck, the entire reason this new rule was put into place has very little to do with the Steelers, and everything to do with the Saints who were royally screwed out of an almost certain Super Bowl berth when the officials kept their flags in their pockets during an egregious pass interference play against the Rams in the waning seconds of the NFL title game.
Don’t I want those kinds of calls reversed? Sure I do. However, I don’t want every single incomplete pass subject to review inside of two minutes. Unless I’m missing something here, that is exactly what you could have with this new rule. Again, pass interference is a judgement call. And while some calls—or non-calls—may be egregious, do we really want to sit around and wait for officials to use their best judgement after every pass that may or may not have drawn a flag inside of two minutes?
NFL, save your automatic reviews for things like catches. As for those pass interference flags that should or shouldn’t have been called, force those coaches to challenge them—even inside of two minutes.