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.