Pass interference replay review: A stunning, needed sea change

PHOENIX -- The National Football League, like so many big corporations, changes slowly, bound by years of precedent, concerned that anything more than incremental movement will upset the delicate balance on which it has perched in a ride to success.

"Baby steps," is what Denver Broncos GM John Elway said early this week he would be comfortable with, as the NFL gathered for the Annual League Meeting to discuss using replay to review pass interference calls. Elway's sentiment has been the majority view for years, on topics big and small.

A look at the bottom-line revenue tells you that cautiousness has mostly served the league's decision-makers well on all manner of agenda items. It has also led them into occasional ugly blind spots. In a much more serious case, all that precedent and caution is how the NFL fumbled its initial reaction to domestic violence in its game, until it was forced to quickly evolve its thinking.

The world was racing right by the NFL on the field, too. Technology and television have given fans a much better view of the game than those officiating it on the field. The players are stronger and swifter, creating more stress on officials to keep up. And in the blink of an eye in a cacophonous Superdome, a call can be missed that upends the entire perfectly constructed season.

Officiating is a high-wire act with no safety net. A mistake like the non-call late in the NFC Championship Game may very well have sent the wrong team to the Super Bowl, and it was amplified by rapid social media reaction and weeks of analysis.

But there actually was a safety net available all along -- and on Tuesday, the NFL finally unfurled it for its officials and its game.

Tuesday's decision by the league's owners to allow pass interference to be reviewable -- and, in an even more unexpected development, to allow non-calls to be reviewed -- was a stunner. When owners arrived here just three days ago, there seemed to be little appetite for the giant leap they were about to take. In a process that began with a contentious meeting between coaches and the Competition Committee on Monday afternoon and continued with an emergency meeting of the committee later that night, a proposal to allow replay looks at pass interference -- but only those called -- morphed in fits and starts into what the league wound up with Tuesday night. As Rich McKay, chairman of the Competition Committee, put it, the sausage got made on Tuesday.

The process might have been messy, but the result is the right one.

It may also represent a sea change -- a philosophical one certainly, but perhaps also a generational one. Coaches -- led by the aggrieved Sean Payton, who sits on the Competition Committee -- were united and loud in their demand for greater change to the rules. Tuesday morning at the Coaches Breakfast, Payton invoked millennials who couldn't believe the league would leave without making a rule change. That coaches view the game differently than owners is not new. Their fates hinge on win-loss records and they didn't need to see the data the league office generated to know that pass interference is by far the most game-changing penalty and, not incidentally, also the one that officials call incorrectly more often than any other call.

What was different here is that coaches had Commissioner Roger Goodell on their side. He, like all commissioners, is employed by the league's owners, and so he is often the one who represents their views and, inevitably, shields them from criticism. When other contentious rules issues have arisen, the coaches have been allowed to vent and then were promptly ignored. Nine years ago, when the league wanted overtime rules changed, but the coaches did not, Goodell waited until the coaches were on the golf course for their annual outing before he called for the vote. No surprise. The owners own the league, after all. The coaches are their employees, and many of them are short-timers at that.

This time, Goodell implored the owners to listen to their coaches, eschew the cautious baby steps and make the big leap. He knew what Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, had said late last week was right: The NFL would have a credibility problem if nothing changed after the NFC Championship Game debacle. Not allowing replay review of non-calls would have been change only for change's sake -- it would not have solved the problem from New Orleans.

"I told the owners we need to get to a place, and I felt strongly we should have OPI and DPI and that we should be able to throw flags [that were not thrown on the field]," Goodell said Tuesday night. "Everyone in there finally got to understand through a long process and a lot of discussion, everyone wanted to get it right. Some had to remove themselves from long-shared views."

That the vote tally ended up at 31-1 was jaw-dropping, considering the long-held view that there exists a layer of teams that still view all replay with suspicion. Elway, in explaining why he preferred the "baby steps" approach, said he worried that if the league were to go too far with a change, it would be more difficult to reel a rule back in. That is a legitimate concern. The league structured the rule so that in the final two minutes of each half, a coach cannot challenge pass interference. As with the rest of replay, only a member of the officiating department can. Coaches really wanted an official in the stadium, not in the league's command center in New York, to do this, so this was the compromise they came up with. However, the breakthrough came when they decided that in the final two minutes of each half, the booth would initiate the review, not the coaches. Coaches did not want that responsibility.

Vincent thinks there will be a spike in offensive pass interference calls from challenge, at least initially. It is the hardest call officials have to make and it is prevalent on pick plays, but officials will be told to be disciplined on Hail Mary throws at the end of games -- it will have to be an egregious foul.

Still, there were those who wondered Tuesday night if we will see an explosion of players purposely working to draw interference now, particularly late in halves, when the booth review would look at any suspect plays. Maybe so. This rule was put in place for one year, meaning the league will be forced to examine it again next offseason. Frankly, this rule is going nowhere now that it is here, but the league could tweak and refine it as challenges to it arise.

That, though, is better than the alternative the NFL was facing if it left here without a rule. Just check out the last line of the rule proposal that owners finally approved Tuesday night.

"Reason: Integrity of the game."

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.