The most famous play of the 2018 season wasn’t a catch, tackle, or run—it was the blown call heard round the world that helped propel the Rams past the Saints and into the Super Bowl. This offseason, the NFL changed its rules to make pass interference reviewable. But did it go too far? In trying to avoid one controversy, did the league create the potential for another? What debates could happen next? On Friday, The Ringer explores the ever-changing state of football officiating and how it continues to shape how we experience the game.
Officially, it’s called Rule 15, Section 3, Article 10, but unofficially Nickell Robey-Coleman wants it to be called “the Nickell Robey-Coleman Rule.” If that is too wordy, he thinks “the NRC rule” would work splendidly.
“The rule was called off of the play that I made,” Robey-Coleman said. “Ain’t no other name to call it.”
With the Saints and Rams tied at 20 with less than two minutes to go in the NFC championship game and a Super Bowl trip on the line this past January, New Orleans faced a third-and-10 at the Rams’ 13-yard line. Drew Brees tossed a swing pass to receiver Tommylee Lewis, but Robey-Coleman barreled in and blew Lewis up before the ball arrived. After the game Robey-Coleman admitted he had gotten beat on the play and was trying to prevent a touchdown. When a reporter showed him the video, Robey-Coleman said, “Oh, hell yeah, that was PI.”
Except it wasn’t, at least on the field. Even though it fit the textbook definition of pass interference and also qualified as a helmet-to-helmet hit, the referees did not call a penalty on the play. The Saints settled for a field goal, and the Rams tied the game before regulation expired and then won in overtime. Chaos ensued. The Ringer called it the worst missed call in NFL playoff history. Saints head coach Sean Payton told reporters that after the game, he spoke to vice president of officiating Al Riveron, who started the conversation by saying, “We messed up.” After the game the Saints were speechless that their season ended this way a year after they lost in the Minneapolis Miracle (though they later found their voices online). Saints fans staged an anti–Super Bowl protest with referee voodoo dolls and people dressed like officials in dunk tanks. The governor of Louisiana dubbed the missed call “a terrible injustice.” Saints receiver Michael Thomas threw his Super Bowl tickets in a public trash can and posted the video to Twitter. A fan filed a lawsuit against the NFL and, incredibly, an Orleans Parish District Court judge ordered commissioner Roger Goodell be deposed to explain the noncall. Payton told reporters he spent weeks after the game watching The Ted Bundy Tapes and You on Netflix while eating Jeni’s ice cream.
“I hope no other team has to lose a game the way we lost that one today,” he said after the game.
He channeled his heartbreak into activism. As reported by NBC Sports’ Peter King, Payton rallied support among coaches to push for a rule change at the owners’ meetings in late March. The gravity of the loss brought an unlikely group of allies together. Patriots coach Bill Belichick convinced the 31 coaches to stay in a meeting an hour longer than originally scheduled. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett delivered a passionate plea to the league’s coaches, executives, and owners that reportedly moved the needle by arguing that it was a disgrace that fans were discussing only officiating after two excellent conference championship games. Goodell felt so strongly about responding to fan outrage that he aligned with Payton, whom he had an icy relationship with after the league suspended the coach for New Orleans’s injury bounty scandal in 2012.
Making pass interference reviewable had been floated for years. It’s done in the Canadian Football League, but its introduction added so much time to games that the league reduced coach challenges from two per game to one in 2017 (this offseason they approved a rule to allow a second challenge if the coach gets their first one correct). The NFL was always wary of making games longer, so the proposals were never taken seriously, but Payton and Goodell’s push along with Garrett’s plea changed opinions swiftly. As King reported, Goodell’s straw poll of ownership suggested fewer than 10 owners supported making pass interference reviewable at the beginning of the owners’ meetings. Two days later the rule passed 31-1, with Bengals owner Mike Brown casting the lone vote against the change. The final rule created a trial that will make both offensive and defensive pass interference reviewable for the 2019 season, allowing for flags to be taken off the field for erroneous calls or thrown retroactively when a penalty was missed. The league will vote on whether to make the rule permanent next year.
Amid all of it, Robey-Coleman was proud to introduce a little anarchy in the form of the play that led to the most significant change to instant replay since the current system was introduced 20 years ago.
“It definitely changed the evolution of the game,” he said.
The emotions of the Saints’ missing out on a Super Bowl pushed the rule through, but in doing so, everyone involved made a foundational mistake: Nobody cares that the blown penalty was specifically pass interference. The problem was that an obvious mistake went uncalled. Most coaches agreed something had to be done, and many coaches reportedly wanted a “sky judge,” an idea ripped from the short-lived Alliance of American Football where an eighth referee in the booth can correct egregious errors in the moment. But rather than implement a way to overturn game-changing mistakes, the NFL made a rule looking at all pass interference penalties. If the exact same situation happens in next year’s NFC championship game but with a holding or false start penalty, the league will still be unable to correct the call.
Not only did the league fail to solve the problem, but it may have created a much larger one by expanding the purview of instant replay. The standard the league settled on for overturning a pass interference call or non-call was whether “clear and obvious visual evidence” shows that a defender did something to “significantly hinder” the receiver. Almost immediately, it became clear that “clear and obvious” was neither clear nor obvious. Six weeks before the preseason, the definition had still not been finalized. Riveron, the senior VP of officiating, showed examples of potential pass interference plays to a room of NFL Network media members and asked them to vote on whether it was a penalty or not. The room was split on almost all of the plays. In that same meeting, Riveron said that one of the biggest plays of Super Bowl LIII would have been overturned and a retroactive pass interference penalty would have been called on Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore for hindering Rams receiver Brandin Cooks. That would have given the Rams the ball inside the 5-yard line down 10-3 with 4:24 remaining, changing the course of the game.
There is a rich history of NFL rule changes being forecast to ruin football only to have a far smaller impact than anticipated, and Riveron is quick to explain that this doesn’t even technically count as a rule change.
“The no. 1 main thing we have to stress to all of our fans is that it’s not a rule change per se for the way that pass interference, both offensively and defensively, will be called or administered on the field,” Riveron told Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk on Wednesday. “All it is is that pass interference has been added as a reviewable aspect of the play.”
But that’s a massive change. In the past replay was reserved for the objective aspects of the game, like whether a runner stepped out of bounds or whether the ball crossed the plane of the goal line. The penalties that are reviewable, 12 men on the field and whether the quarterback crossed the line of scrimmage before throwing a pass, are black-and-white issues. Pass interference exists almost exclusively in the gray.
Terry McAulay, an NFL referee from 1998 to 2017 who refereed three Super Bowls and currently serves as the rules analyst for Sunday Night Football on NBC, said in a July interview with The Ringer that this expansion of replay is akin to cracking open Pandora’s box.
“I believe [pass interference is the] most highly subjective call in football,” McAulay said. “And you’re going to subject it to an analysis based on super slow-motion HD replay.”
Teams play with a different officiating crew every week, and the standard for pass interference varies greatly from crew to crew and even ref to ref. Defensive backs often rely on figuring out what they can and cannot get away with in each game to gain an edge. That makes pass coverage more of an art than a science. Robey-Coleman said that feeling out each referee group is crucial to a defense’s success. If a crew is emphasizing pass interference, that means playing by the book with good technique. But if the refs are letting them grab and tug, the defense will be more physical with receivers. As a general rule, Robey-Coleman said the calls are stricter in the regular season but more lenient in big games, including the playoffs.
“You have some refs that are real sensitive, but you have some refs that let you play,” Robey-Coleman said.
Chargers Pro Bowl cornerback Casey Hayward is more blunt.
“Sometimes I hold and they don’t call it,” he said.
Hayward’s process of figuring out how officials are calling the game begins in the preseason, when the refs are stricter than they typically are once the real games start. From there, it goes to studying the tendencies of certain crews (some throw 1.5 flags in pass coverage per game while others throw more than twice as many) and making the necessary adjustments with trial and error on the field.
“You can’t be too mad at human error,” Hayward said. “When you slow things down it can always be a pass interference.”
Talent can get a cornerback to the NFL, but wisdom will keep him there. That savvy is often the difference between great players and even great teams. The Legion of Boom Seahawks purposefully set an over-the-top physical tone early in games to move the window of what referees considered a penalty the rest of the contest.
Applying a consistent standard to a rule that has never had one may prove challenging. Offensive and defensive pass interference penalties are similar to fouls near the rim in basketball. Not only do the standards for penalties change from game to game with different refs, but also player to player. Like basketball, small players can be more physical with big players. Robey-Coleman is 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, and he said he can get away with more contact defending the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Rob Gronkowski than he can against the 5-foot-10, 198-pound Julian Edelman. That could be a complicating factor in deciding whether a defender’s action “significantly” hindered the pass catcher.
Also like basketball, there’s a bias toward star players. Julio Jones’s jostling with a cornerback will earn the benefit of the doubt from referees the same way LeBron James or Steph Curry would going for a contested layup.
“If you grab and tug on Julio [Jones] a little bit, I’m pretty sure the referee is going to call it because he’s a great receiver and maybe that tug did affect the throw,” Robey-Coleman said. “I’m not trying to downplay anybody’s skills, but if it was another receiver they probably be like, ‘No, it didn’t affect him as much as it would Julio Jones.’”
As challenging as it will be to apply a universal standard to a practice like defensive pass interference that has so much week-to-week and player-to-player variance, it will be even harder for officials to be consistent with offensive pass interference.
“I’m not even sure the NFL has a clear understanding of what offensive pass interference is, based on what I observed last season,” McAulay said. “It is a huge gap.”
Defenders, however, are thrilled that receivers may be held to a higher standard and that the leniency long granted to them may be reined in.
“From an offensive perspective no more pushing off, no more getting away with the extended elbows,” Robey-Coleman said. “Because now when they challenge the play they’re not just looking for DPI, they’re looking for everything that’s going on around the play as well.”
McAulay points out that the offensive pass interference aspect of the rule could wreak havoc in unanticipated ways. While a receiver and defender bumping downfield may not be clear or obvious, how far downfield they are is indisputable. On screens or run-pass options, referees usually ignore whether linemen or receivers are technically too far downfield to block, but now smart teams may monitor big plays and try to challenge whether there is an ineligible man downfield on those quick passes.
“Nobody really ever talks about that but that is now in play,” McAulay said. “You talk about the quick bubble screens or something where the wide receiver’s trying to time his block so it’s not before the receiver catches the ball. A lot of times it’s very, very close. Well now with slow-motion replay, we’re going to look at it very closely.”
That provides another opportunity for smart organizations to pounce on teams with sloppy coaching. But if a 75-yard Todd Gurley touchdown is called back because a replay review reveals a receiver was blocking too far downfield, many fans will see it as the letter of the law infringing on the spirit of the game. McAulay said that removing this judgment from referees is a mistake, depriving them of the authority and motivation to do their jobs.
“Just like it is for a player making a great catch or throwing a great pass, getting the call right on the field is a tremendous thrill,” McAulay said. “And conversely, getting it wrong is certainly a letdown and you work to get better. Just like players, it’s really not any different at all. So when you take that away from them, you take that away from the on-field officials. It does lessen their feeling or their understanding of why they’re really needed out there.”
Removing decision-making from the hands of referees is part of a wider refereeing crisis in sports, particularly at youth levels, where people no longer want to take the criticism that comes with refereeing. Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball and The Big Short, launched a seven-part podcast earlier this year where he used the undermined authority of NBA referees to show how similar jobs are under attack in all corners of American society, from referees in other sports to the Securities and Exchange Commission on Wall Street to authenticators in high-end art. McAulay called the podcast required listening for everyone in the sports world.
“People are less forgiving of that human error than I’ve ever seen,” McAulay said.
McAulay doesn’t think the league should have waded into reviews for pass interference, but if it was going to make any subjective penalties reviewable, it would have been better off focusing on a player-safety-related issue like initiating helmet-to-helmet contact. He specifically cites Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith’s hit on Saints running back Alvin Kamara last season as a call that is difficult to make on the field but important enough to player safety that it is worth reviewing and throwing a penalty flag after the fact.
“You never ever want to have a situation where that goes unpenalized,” McAulay said. “And I really wish that would have been their first step, and I think they would’ve been met with a tremendous amount of applause and cheering.”
Instead the league has chosen its most subjective penalty on which to impose a consistent standard, and that has a disproportionately high chance of going wrong in a big moment. The angles that fans see on TV are the same ones available to the referees in the replay booth. The bigger the game—Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, Thursday Night Football, or the playoffs—the more cameras in the stadium. As Robey-Coleman said, “big games, they let us play”—meaning refs are less likely to call penalties on 50-50 plays. But more cameras leads to more potential scrutiny, and the most scrutiny will come in the final two minutes of each half when coaching challenges are paused and the replay booth will have to decide whether a play warrants stopping the game to initiate a review. This creates a situation where a loud minority of fans can argue passionately that they were wronged in a high-profile moment if a call doesn’t go their way. It also may have the effect of giving a mouse a cookie. If pass interference is reviewable, fans will be less tolerant of nonreviewable missed penalty calls that cost their team a win. Ironically, a rule implemented to move the conversation away from officiating could instead keep fans transfixed on it as they try to justify every loss by finding a missed call that should have been reviewed.
In trying to steer out of the way of one controversy, the league seems to have turned the wheel so far in the other direction that the instant replay process is at risk of flipping over. If Rule 15, Section 3, Article 10 crashes and burns this year, everyone—even the man responsible for “the NRC rule”—may be happy to return to the way things were.
“To keep it black and white, a foul is a foul at the end of the day,” Robey-Coleman said. “If you foul a person, you foul a person. You know what I’m saying? But if you get away with it, that’s different.”