The NFL Rule Change Controversy

By Joe M. ’21

Heading into this year, one of the most notable changes to the rulebook was coaches’ new ability to challenge the ruling of pass interference on the field of play. So, why exactly did the NFL decide to allow pass interference to be a reviewable play? 

This change was brought about by the infamous play from the closing minutes of last year’s NFC Championship game. On a 3rd and 10 late in the 4th quarter, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints threw a swing route to running back Tommy Lee Lewis. Before the ball arrived, Lewis was decked by Rams linebacker Nickell Robey-Coleman. Lewis, Brees, Coach Sean Payton, and everybody in the entire stadium was waiting for a flag to fly that would have given the Saints a first down inside the 10 yard line, setting them up for a game winning touchdown. But a flag never came. The refs swallowed their whistles, and it was suddenly 4th and 10 for the Saints, who then decided to kick a field goal that gave them a three point lead. The Rams then drove down the field, kicked a field goal of their own, and won in overtime. The city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana have yet to get over this non-call that arguably robbed them of a Super Bowl appearance. The fact that the Super Bowl was a 13-3 defensive snoozer made it seem even more likely to Saints fans that the Saints, with their high powered offense, would have beaten the victorious Patriots with relative ease. This made the egregious non-call stand out even more prominently on the NFL’s checkered officiating record.

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The NFL decided to change the rules of the game this year, making pass interference, both offensive and defensive, a reviewable play. This new rule has brought absolutely no change to the playing field. Refs rarely ever overturn the call on the field, even when it is egregious. For example, in this clip, a pass interference was called on the field, so New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur decided to challenge. He knew that his defense would get a huge third down stop if the flag got picked up, giving his offense would get the ball. 

The refs, for whatever reason, did not reverse the call on the field, and upheld this horrendous call of pass interference. This is just one of many examples of calls every week where refs refuse to acknowledge their mistakes. Why do coaches even bother continuing to challenge? Well, when a question like this was posed to Seattle Coach Pete Carroll, he responded that “he knew he wasn’t going to win this challenge,” and that “he threw the flag to prove a point.” This statement may be some revisionist history from Carroll, as it seems unlikely he’d waste a timeout in a tight game that eventually went to overtime, but the very fact that he was willing to vocally call out the refs, knowing that a fine might be coming, proves a point as well. Carroll is almost daring the NFL to punish or contradict him, but so far, they have not. They know that he’s right that challenges are almost unwinnable, but they don’t care. 

So why did the NFL change the rules, if they don’t plan to enforce them? To appease New Orleans? Doubtful; the NFL doesn’t care about stuff like that. It is always about money with the NFL. The NFL is a multi-billion dollar corporation, and football is a highly addictive product. Lifelong fans don’t stop watching because they are unhappy about a missed call; they love their teams too much, and this love for their team trumps their hatred for the league itself. Therefore, appeasing fans from New Orleans lead to no increase in revenue for the NFL, and set a dangerous precedent of altering rules to retroactively admit mistakes. A more likely motivation is that the NFL realized that not making pass interference reviewable was a serious hole in the structure of the league. While they still place their trust in the refs in most cases, they cannot allow for their product to be tainted in critical moments by human error. If the above clip had been in the 4th quarter of a playoff game, without a doubt, it would have been overturned. The decision to make PI reviewable added the ability to change game-tainting plays when the stakes are highest, not to fix errors that may happen in the 3rd quarter of Week 3. But why not change these calls? Why is the NFL backing up their referees so much? 

One idea is that the person who controls replay review is a referee themselves, and so they would likely prefer to affirm the call of their coworker, rather than change the call, and admit that said coworker made a mistake. This makes sense, and is what most NFL fans claim is the reason for the inexplicable upholding of pass interference penalties. One could then counter this argument by saying that replay review has been around since the 1980s, and there is no proof that referees commonly and incorrectly uphold the call on the field. However, that leaves out the fact that pass interference is still a “judgement” call, while as other reviewable plays are calls that a robot could make.

Now, since this is a school newspaper, let’s use a scholastic analogy. Let’s say there’s a generous grader who wants to give his or her students all credit possible. If they are grading math, it is impossible to say that 4+9=8. As much as the grader may want to give credit, they cannot justify an incorrect answer. However, if they were to grade a subject like english, which is much more subjective, they may be able to give credit for something the student may have gotten wrong. There is a benefit of the doubt involved in grading English, and likewise, replay review referees are able to give the benefit of the doubt to their on the field companions for judgement calls. 

This still leaves the question as to why the NFL lets their referees do this. Replacement refs are the reason. Every fanbase in the world has complained about referees at one point or another, and said that they suck. And, it’s possible that they are right. The refs may not be good at their job. But they are a lot better than any replacements. Most football fans remember 2012, when during the beginning of the season, the NFL had to use replacement refs as they were stuck in a lockout with the NFL referee association. These refs were famously terrible, culminating in a horrible call on the last play  of a primetime game, the infamous “fail mary.” To conclude, the root of the reason that so many horrendous calls on the field are upheld regarding pass interference, the refs know that they are borderline irreplaceable, and so they easily muster the gall to uphold the decision of their teammates on the field in the face of what may or may not be correct.

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