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NFL owners to talk replay expansion at Annual League Meeting

In the two months since the NFC Championship Game, the pass-interference-that-wasn't has overshadowed almost everything, with even a top NFL executive admitting that the blown call late in regulation that helped send the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl took a bit of the air out of what had been one of the league's most exciting seasons.

In the coming days, team owners could try to minimize the chances that it ever happens again.

At the NFL's Annual League Meeting, which starts Sunday and continues through Wednesday, owners will consider whether to expand replay to allow pass interference -- and perhaps even roughing the passer and defenseless player fouls -- to be reviewable. In the past, owners have been reluctant to make judgment calls reviewable. But the league's own data shows that defensive and offensive pass interference account for the most officiating errors on impactful plays. Defensive pass interference accounted for 70 percent of fouls with the largest impact on a game-winning chance in games from the 2016 through 2018 regular seasons. Of the 50 biggest incorrect calls made during that span, 24 were defensive pass interference. Offensive pass interference is the most common mistaken non-call.

"The goal is to correct clear officiating errors on impactful plays," said Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, in an interview with earlier this week.

Owners will be asked to separately consider whether to just allow pass interference to be reviewable or to allow pass interference, roughing the passer and defenseless player calls to be reviewable. The rest of the replay challenge system would remain the same, with final decisions on challenges being made at the officiating command center at the league's headquarters in New York. If anything is approved, it will be implemented for one year and then reviewed after the season. The proposals are the result of weeks of meetings involving the Competition Committee that began shortly after Super Bowl LIII.

Vincent said there is a strong sentiment that change is needed after the high-profile mistake in the NFC Championship Game. But Vincent and one member of the Competition Committee said that there remains no appetite for allowing review to address non-calls, meaning that even if these rules had been in place for the NFC Championship Game, nothing could have been done to address the missed pass interference call that started the controversy.

"That's part of the business," Vincent said. "We're going to miss some of those."

That play, though, has clearly been the impetus for expanding replay now. Several teams have proposed expanding replay in previous years, but the Competition Committee has long been concerned with allowing judgment calls to be reviewed and with whether that would slow the game down. But Vincent said there have been game-changing -- perhaps life-altering -- mistakes made, and it is clear that the league is mindful of the firestorm that erupted after the NFC Championship Game as it considers its options. Vincent sounds convinced that owners cannot leave the meeting without making a change, with the data on pass interference mistakes being persuasive.

"Our credibility is on the line," Vincent said of the Competition Committee and the league. "For us to say, 'It's OK.' Nah, that's not where we are. For the commissioner's office and the committee to come out with nothing? You have to."

The committee briefly considered adding a "sky judge" after the idea surfaced during meetings with coaches at the NFL Scouting Combine last month. That idea -- which would have added an eighth member to the officiating crew with the power to overturn a limited scope of calls or non-calls on the field during limited stretches of the game -- has generated little support. One of the big concerns: Where would the league find all those extra officials, who would have considerable power?

Vincent, though, believes the most significant rules change that will be made in Arizona will be the complete elimination of blind-side blocks. The league's data shows that 63 percent of concussions from punts and blocks are caused by blind-side blocks, and the Competition Committee believes their elimination is a significant safety advancement and a considerable change in the culture of the game.

Two rules proposals from teams that have generated fan discussion will be discussed:

-- The Kansas City Chiefs' proposal to change overtime to mandate each team get a chance to possess the ball has not generated much support from the Competition Committee. The league's data also indicates that the result of overtime is not as tilted to which team wins the coin toss as is commonly believed. In the last seven seasons, only 20 percent of overtimes have ended on the opening drive. And since overtime was shortened to 10 minutes in 2017, the receiving team has won 48.4 percent of the time, with the kickoff team winning 45.2 percent of the time. Under current rules, each team gets a chance to possess the ball once unless the team that wins the toss scores a touchdown on the opening drive -- which, of course, is how the Patriots beat the Chiefs in the AFC title game.

-- The Denver Broncos' proposal to provide teams with an alternative to the onside kick generated a lot of interest from the Competition Committee, with members believing it could be a fun option for teams, given that rules changes designed to make the kickoff safer have all but eliminated the chance to successfully execute an onside kick. The proposal calls for teams to get the option, a maximum of once per game during the fourth quarter only, of foregoing a kickoff and instead attempting to remain on offense following a score by converting what would essentially be a fourth-and-15 play from its own 35-yard line. If the play is converted, the team keeps possession. If the attempt fails, the other team takes over possession.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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