After a season that saw regular complaints about officiating, the Lions submitted one of about 12 proposals the NFL's Competition Committee received to change instant replay. That's an unusually high number of proposals, reflecting a higher-than-usual angst level over the consistency and accuracy of officiating. The proposals range from slight changes -- allowing reviews of penalties for hits on defenseless receivers -- to allowing reviews of every play in the game.
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew told Detroit reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine that the Lions' proposal would allow coaches to challenge a call if the official throws a flag but would not allow a challenge if an official does not throw a flag. Thus, had that rule been in place this past season, Lions coach Jim Caldwell could have challenged the ruling when officials picked up the flag against the Cowboys, because the flag had already been thrown.
The potential end result of all the proposals: There may be no changes at all.
The committee, which considers rule changes each offseason, met last week in Indianapolis and will convene again in Naples, Florida, next week to formulate proposals to put before coaches, general managers and owners at the league's annual meeting in late March. For now, it's not clear even to members of the committee whether there will be a consensus on any of the proposals to put before the owners for a vote.
According to New York Giants president John Mara, a member of the committee, and Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president for football operations, the proposal that has the best chance to pass is allowing review of hits on defenseless receivers, though Mara said that is far from certain. The argument for allowing challenges to defenseless receiver penalties is essentially the argument for making many more penalties reviewable -- it is a very difficult call to make correctly in real time.
"It's a bang-bang play," Vincent said. "It's one of the toughest to officiate. Was he able to protect himself? It goes back to safety first."
Still, the lack of enthusiasm for greater changes to replay is telling. The NFL typically moves slowly on significant rule changes in part because of concerns about unintended consequences: How will a play be taught and how will it be officiated if a change is made? That's one reason why a modification to the so-called Calvin Johnson rule about what constitutes a catch might be difficult to enact. While the rule as currently constructed is hard for fans to understand -- not what the league wants, Vincent said -- there is also the fear that changes could remove some of the clear, though confounding, parameters that constitute a reception, making it more of a judgment call for officials.
While one of the most discussed ideas in recent years has been to allow the review of every play, with a limit on how many challenges each team would be permitted -- Patriots coach Bill Belichick has voiced support for it -- officials cringe at the idea of what Vincent calls "creating fouls." The fear of the consequence of that proposal is simple: Coaches could go on a fishing expedition for a penalty that would negate a big play against their team. Mara said that after the meeting in Indianapolis there was not much support for making every play reviewable.
"We do understand reviewing what was called on the field," Vincent said. "For a coach to potentially challenge something that was not called, we run the risk of creating fouls. 'Yeah, that was a hold. Yeah, that was an illegal hands to the face.' "
"We saw 12 different proposals on replay, which means it's something we have to look at," Vincent added. "You want to get it right, but you could be creating fouls. And long term, if we start here, you just continue adding year in and year out, and is that what you want? You don't want to go down the road of opening Pandora's Box, and this year it's expanding this, and next year it's expanding that."
There is also an undeniable concern that expanding replay undermines officials, who are making calls in real time, only to be second-guessed by frame-by-frame replays. Pass interference is often mentioned as a potential candidate to be made reviewable, but that is in part because it is so often such a big play that -- as the Lions learned -- is called inconsistently from one crew to another. Another solution, Vincent said, might be to eventually make pass interference a 15-yard penalty and not a penalty to the spot of the foul.
"We must keep in mind that officials and players are moving at game speed, and those of us who are making decisions on rules have the luxury of slow-motion video," Vincent said. "Sometimes game speed and rule changes aren't always compatible."
The league will likely use an eighth official during the preseason, as it did last year, in hopes of catching more penalties on interior line play. And the tinkering with the game won't end there. Vincent said the league is likely to continue experimenting with making the extra point kick more difficult in an era when long snappers are specialists and field conditions are often nearly perfect. Last year, the league tried longer extra points in the preseason and narrower goalposts in the Pro Bowl. The extra point conversion rate was 99.3 percent in the regular season. And kickers missed just six of 257 field-goal attempts from 29 yards and in.
There is no consensus yet for a permanent change, Vincent said, but he called the extra point as it is currently executed "a dead play."
"Our efforts are not to remove the foot from the game," Vincent said. "This is to make (the game) more competitive."