Blandino: Why the Rams-Saints replay rule has the NFL on a "slippery slope"

Photo courtesy of USA Today
Clark Judge

(EDITOR'S NOTE: To access the Dean Blandino interview, fast-forward to 1:05:20 of the attachment above)

NFL coaches … and, later, NFL owners … agreed that expanding replay to include pass interference is good for the game – mostly because neither wants a recurrence of the blown call in the Rams-Saints NFC championship game.

And so the league last month made pass interference a reviewable rule, enforceable in the upcoming season.

But in doing so, FOX rules analyst Dean Blandino explained on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast, the league has stepped on to “a slippery slope,” otherwise known as the broad reach of replay as an officiating tool.

Specifically, he said, it has to do with its limits. Because now that replay is expanded to include pass interference penalties, what’s next?

“That’s the next question,” said Blandino, the league’s vice president of officiating from 2013-17. “This is the first kind of 'let’s-dip-our-toes-in-the-water.'

"I’ve experienced this. We brought replay back in 1999, and there was a small set of plays that were reviewable … and it mushroomed into this big thing. And that’s what I anticipate is going to happen.

"We’re going to have a play next year where there’s going to be a facemask missed. Or a big hit on a receiver. And the question’s going to come up: “Well, you can review pass interference. Why can’t you review that? That impacted the game.” And now we’re going to add that to the list of reviewable plays. Now we’re down that slippery slope.”

In Blandino’s opinion, they’re already there. That’s because allowing replay to review pass interference calls invites the frame-by-frame scrutiny that made the pernicious Catch Rule so difficult to understand … and, in the end, impossible to tolerate.

But it’s here because of one botched call in the Rams-Saints game, and it’s not going away. On the contrary, it’s here to stay … with Blandino attaching a warning: Be careful what you wish for, people.

“We’re here because of that play in the NFC championship game,” he said. “If that play happens in the first quarter ... or even if the Saints win the game … I don’t think this rule passes. And that’s the big challenge.

“You have rules that are written for on-field officials to make decisions in real time. And now we’re going to slow it down, and we’re going to go frame-by-frame, and we’re going to see contact that was not evident to the naked eye. Do we want 40-and-50-yard pass interference penalties created by that? Do we want a play in the Super Bowl that … really after some initial conversation between (CBS analyst Tony) Romo and (CBS announcer Jim) Nantz … went away?”

The reference was to a goal-line incompletion late in Super Bowl LIII where Rams’ wide receiver Brandin Cooks failed to make what would have been a game-tying touchdown catch. Cooks’ arm was hit by cornerback Stephon Gilmore just prior to the ball’s arrival, but the contact seemed incidental … until, that is, replay was slowed down frame by frame.

Coaches at the March league meeting agreed it was pass interference. Officials at the game did not. They ruled it an incompletion. On the next play, Rams' quarterback Jared Goff was intercepted.

"Nobody talked about it,” said Blandino. “And now imagine this rule in place and that play called in replay. We’d still be talking about it. There are going to be some challenges here.

“That’s why the competition committee has been opposed to making these fouls reviewable because there’s a standard on the field and there’s a standard in replay. And they’re different.

“Look, the coaches …. I get it. They want the ability to challenge these calls. Nobody wants to see what happened in the Saints-Rams game happen again. But that’s not a call that’s missed that badly by NFL officials on a regular basis. That’s a once-in-a-long-time miss. Now let’s figure out how we’re going to administer it.”

Good luck.

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