NFL will rue the day it expanded replay to include reviewing pass interference

Photo courtesy of USA Today.
Ron Borges

Knee-jerk reactions, like knee surgery itself, seldom leave a body in better condition than it originally was. That is why NFL owners may rue the day they caved to the constant carping of New Orleans Saints’ coach Sean Payton and extended the plague of instant replay to include pass interference.

One blown call, though embarrassing -- and, in the case of Payton, probably costing his team a Super Bowl berth this year -- does not a crisis make. Yet Payton whipped his fellow coaches into such a lather they voted 32-0 to endorse a replay change that now makes pass interference reviewable.

The owners then backed them, 31-1, with Mike Brown of the Bengals the only voice of restraint.

Why, you might ask, would it be unwise to right something like the obvious wrong Rams’ cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman got away with when he undressed Tommylee Lewis at the 5-yard line with 1:45 left in the NFC Championship and the game tied? Had Lewis caught the ball he either scores or allows New Orleans to run the clock down to nothing before a game-winning chip-shot field goal, thus avoiding the overtime that beat them.

While replay would certainly have made the call the officials did not, let’s look at the larger picture. What might be the unintended consequences of this rule change?

First, under the new rule a replay official can now throw a flag from the booth that was not thrown on the field. He can review not only bad calls but non-calls. With the NFL having unwisely become recent business partners with legalized gambling how long before some official in a TV booth is accused of throwing a flag for Caesars Palace?

How about before that first replay has run?

“Now they can control the outcome as they see fit,’’ complained All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman. “Every defendable pass looks like PI in slow motion.’’

True. That’s why this has the potential for disastrous consequences and a further growth of officiating inconsistencies, which is already a widespread problem in pro football.

The most powerful person in football now will not be Tom Brady or Bill Belichick. It will be some unknown guy in a replay booth who says, “Wait a minute!’’ and then re-runs a video over and over in super slo-mo as if it were the Zapruder film.

The truth is: By the letter of the law there’s pass interference on every deep ball. Often it’s committed (though seldom called) as much by the receiver as the defender. So let’s see how many times replay flags the offense after the officials flag no one.

Worse, what about the play where there is contact but where it had no effect on whether the ball was caught or not? The howling will never stop, no matter what is called or not called when someone watches, frame by frame, a hand grab for an instant on an opponent’s forearm or whatever.

And what about the Hail Mary? Different set of rules on that play? If not, just put the ball on the 1-yard line every time and skip the throw because they’re holding and grabbing on both sides the minute the ball starts to come down. If they don’t flag that the replay official will need to say an Act of Contrition after the Hail Mary.

And if they’re going to review pass interference what about holding? It can be just as crucial when a hold is missed at a crucial point in a game. You may think that’s unlikely, but the use of technology in our lives tends to spread. Like a fungus among us, it’s causing as many problems as it solves.

Replay was originally designed to correct obvious errors. It was not created for frame-by-frame, slow-motion, stop-action review to detect things the naked eye could not. This reeks of a situation like the police trying to use the Rodney King tape to claim he was actually assaulting them from flat on his back as they beat him…with sticks!

Does anyone really believe such a radical change in the use of replay would have been made if Robey-Coleman’s assault came in October rather than January?

“We’re here because of that play in the NFC Championship game,’’ former head of NFL officials and FOX Sports rules analyst Dean Blandino told the Talk of Fame Network this week. “Now we’re going to slow it down and see contact not seen by the naked eye. That’s why the competition committee has been opposed to it. Nobody wants to see what happened. But that’s a once=in-a-long-time miss.’’

Normally so dramatic a rules change would be tried out for a year in pre-season and then revisited by the Competition Committee to avoid unintended consequences. But in this case the fix was in. Payton is on that committee and so is Steelers’ coach Mike Tomlin, whose team was knocked out of playoff contention the final game of the season as a result of two blown interference calls that were not reviewable…in a game against Payton’s Saints!

Payton launched a media blitz at the owners' meetings to create a fever pitch around the issue, and the committee, which originally opposed the idea, caved. So did 31 owners. But what have they wrought?

“No question the gambling part of this takes us into a realm where we’ve never been before,’’ Blandino admitted. “Replay mushroomed into this. You’ll have a play next year when a holding call at a key moment is missed.’’

Whether the introduction of replay on pass interference creates more problems than it solves remains to be seen, but one thing does not: It’s just a matter of time before a replay official is accused of influencing a game to make sure the “right team’’ wins.

In fact, Sherman already did so.

So how long before the NFL, which sold its soul long ago, sells officials flags’ with casino logos, and TV broadcasters are announcing “this replay review brought to you by Caesars Palace’’?

At that point it’s not the NFL anymore. It’s WWE.

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