A Hail Mary exemption from replay review could make for strange late-game scenarios

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With the NFL initially going too far to fix the problem created by Rams-Saints and now trying to carve up the blanket inclusion of all forms of pass interference within the scope of replay review, the league apparently will try to ensure that Hail Mary plays aren’t subject to the frame-by-frame search for technical instances of premature contact with a potential receiver.

That strategy is destined to create unusual late-game scenarios.

Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay seems to think it will be easy to define a “Hail Mary” play, based on factors like distance from paydirt, time left on the clock, and the number of receivers in the end zone. Whatever the specifics, smart coaches will engineer their way around those limits, ensuring that the last-ditch heave to the end zone will be subject to replay review — which in turn may cause defensive backs to be a little more careful when it comes to any interactions with the offensive players in position to catch the ball.

As explained on Wednesday, the most obvious tactic will be to send one less receiver to the end zone than whatever the minimum is determined to be. If it’s five, put four in the end zone and one just outside of it. If it’s four, put three in the end zone and one or two just outside it. Whatever the number needed in the end zone to turn replay off, smart coaches will simply devise plays that entail one fewer player being on the wrong side of the goal line.

Things could get screwy as to other factors that may apply to the Hail Mary definition. If, for example, the Competition Committee determines that the Hail Mary rules are activated if the offense is 40 or more yards from the end zone with 10 or fewer seconds on the clock and if, for example, the offense is on the opponent’s 40 with 10 seconds to play, a quick one-yard out route that gets the ball across the 40 and out of bounds will allow the 39-yard heave to the end zone to be subject to replay review.

Whatever the precise parameters for turning off replay review un a Hail Mary setting, smart coaches will factor those numbers into the attempt to set up a last-ditch throw to the end zone that will carry with it the possible invocation (via the throwing of a nothing-to-lose challenge flag) of replay, forcing defenses to be a little more careful than they would be if they know that replay review can’t happen.

So here’s the broader question: Does anyone really want that? Do we want to have as part of the final moments of a game the question of whether the offense will, before throwing a Hail Mary, ensure that the circumstances preserve the opportunity to force Al Riveron to pick through the bodies for clear and obvious evidence of a physical impediment of the player’s ability to catch the ball?

What if a smart coach simply decides to throw the ball short of the end zone, reasoning that the chances of getting a lucky pass interference call via replay review inside the five (and thus securing an untimed down from the spot of the foul) are greater than the chances of a receiver catching the ball in the end zone?

From the conclusion of the Rams-Saints game in mid-January until the commencement of the league’s annual meetings in late March, McKay justified regarding the outcome to the NFC title game as a 100-year aberration by citing the “unintended consequences” of changing the rules. Now, McKay seems to think that the circumstances for ditching replay review in a Hail Mary setting can easily be quantified without any unintended consequences.

It won’t work. Coaches will do what they have to do to try to fit that last throw within the limits of replay review, whatever those limits may be. And that objective will become an integral aspect of the planning for and execution of last-minute drives.

Again, does anyone really want that?

As the general decision to make all forms and types of pass interference subject to replay review yields to specific efforts to narrow the situations where Riveron potentially controls the outcome of a game, the better solution becomes more clear. The better solution continues to be a video official, a Sky Judge. A member of the officiating crew whose sole job is to spot egregious misses that often arise when the officials in the middle of the field fail to see something that is obvious to everyone who is watching the game on TV. With a full-fledged member of the officiating crew also watching the game on TV, situations like the badly missed interference penalty at the end of regulation in Rams-Saints can quickly and efficiently be rectified, not through the cumbersome application of replay review but through the video official/Sky Judge telling the referee that an obvious mistake was made, and that it should immediately be fixed.

That’s the right answer to preventing another 100-year aberration without fundamentally altering the officiating and the strategy that will unfold when a team with waning seconds on the clock tries to gain major chunks of real estate by throwing the ball high and deep and hoping for the best — either through a receiver coming down with the ball or an instance of pass interference not seen in real time but spotted by Riveron as he sifts through the arms, legs, and torsos in an effort to see whether interference occurred.

Fortunately, the expansion of replay review to include pass interference and any looming efforts to erode that broad mandate will apply for one season only. Come 2020, the owners will have another chance to do what should have been done in March: The implementation of a Sky Judge.

10 responses to “A Hail Mary exemption from replay review could make for strange late-game scenarios

  1. “which in turn may cause defensive backs to be a little more careful when it comes to any interactions with the offensive players in position to catch the ball.”
    Offensive players commit fouls to, during a Hail Mary.

  2. I don’t get it. The game is changing anyway. Why try to write a ridiculously narrowly-crafted exception to preserve one part of it, especially when that happens only a few times a season?

    It might seem fun for now but you just KNOW that in ten years some official’s going to forget the exact wording and screw it up. Someone who should’ve been called for a penalty on replay isn’t going to be because a line judge misremembers the three paragraphs of text that govern what can be reviewed when four receivers and one tight end on a franchise tag and exactly zero linemen plus or minus a running back (but only if the running back is outside the numbers) are running downfield. Or something. And the outcome of the game is going to be affected.

    If you’re making interference reviewable just make it reviewable. It’ll lead to a few more successful Hail Mary plays per year and your audience is going to have fun with it…

  3. The real solution if they want to review PI is to say that those plays can only be reviewed in real time, and if there is clear indisputable video evidence in real time to overturn a call or make a call then the call on the field will change. This would have overturned the egregious Saints-Rams non-call while also allowing the players to play and refs to ref.

  4. So long story short….the NFL is officially saying it’s okay to pass interfere on a Hail Mary play and teams will now have to figure out a way around that. Sounds legit

  5. The only frame-by-frame that should be allowed in replay reviews should relate to the ball crossing the goal line or a foot touching out of bounds. All other replays should be viewed at full speed. If you can’t see that the on-field official was wrong at full-speed, then you don’t overturn their call. This should speed up the review and take away the nit-pickiness from the process. Of course, they won’t do this.

    They also should have a sky-cam official but they won’t do that, either.

  6. It’s like the League goes out of its way to screw things up. The rule book shouldn’t look like the Internal Revenue Code, but they’re always adding these intricate rules that need a lawyer and an engineer to interpret and apply them. It’s bonkers.

    Two years ago, Riveron spent the regular season in NY micromanaging the review process. That was a disaster, so he switched to a different, more hands-off, NY review system for the playoffs–though of course without ever acknowledging that a new review standard was being used. I suspect that the bad experience that year has made NY a little gun-shy of the Review Official concept. But come on, is it really so hard to have a Review Official and tell him his job isn’t to micromanage and second-guess?

  7. OK either use replay on every play or don’t use it all. The more you ‘fix’ the worse it gets…..

  8. This is exactly why this site was so wrong in thinking PI should be reviewable in the first place. An unnecessary rule because of the whiny babies in New Orleans is only going to create more problems than it has any hopes of fixing. We need less long stoppages for replay, not more.

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