The recent effort by NFL senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron to explain the new pass interference replay review to members of NFL Media continues to generate new reasons to be concerned that the league’s effort to avoid another Rams-Saints debacle will lead to more, not less, controversy.
Last week, Mike Giardi of NFL Media disclosed that Riveron (who usually conducts these sessions with networks on an off-the-record basis) explained that a Week 15 defensive pass interference call against Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller would have become offsetting interference fouls on replay review, given that Chargers receiver Mike Williams used his arm to get separation. This sparked several PFT articles regarding the potential impact of this approach on replay review of pass interference, with the overriding question being whether 17 replay officials will consistently apply the same standard when determining whether to activate a full-blown replay review based on whether offensive or defensive pass interference did or didn’t happen.
Expanding on the information disclosed by Giardi, Rich Eisen of NFL Media explains in a guest appearance at Football Morning in America that Riveron also pointed to a controversial non-call from Super Bowl LIII, which resulted in Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore not being flagged for pass interference on Rams receiver Brandin Cooks. Eisen writes that Riveron explained to the NFL Media employees that the new procedure would have resulted in a flag being thrown on Gilmore for defensive pass interference.
Because it happened with more than two minutes left in the game, Rams coach Sean McVay would have been required to throw a red challenge flag to initiate replay review. Implicit in Riveron’s belief that replay review would have triggered a penalty flag on Gilmore is the reality that, if Riveron believes that clear and obvious evidence of an error existed to justify overturning the ruling on the field, clear and obvious evidence would have existed to initiate an automatic review under the heightened standard for replay-review gatekeeping when pass interference is at issue.
Watch the play. Is it clear and obvious that Gilmore significantly hindered Cooks? Gilmore definitely makes contact with Cooks, but Cooks still is able to nearly catch the ball. Yes, Gilmore hooks Cooks’ left arm, but Cooks still pulls his arm up and puts it in position for the reception, with only a legal blow delivered by Patriots safety Duron Harmon (and/or the impending blow from Harmon) causing Cooks to lose control of the ball.
So is it clear and obvious that Gilmore significantly hindered Cooks? I don’t think it is.
Flip it around. If pass interference had been called, would if have been clear and obvious that Gilmore didn’t significantly hinder Cooks? No. Which means that, regardless of the call, the ruling on the field arguably should stand.
Riveron obviously thinks otherwise. Unless the NFL plans to replace Riveron before the start of the season, he’ll be the ultimate internal authority on matters of this nature for 2019. Based on his mishandling of multiple catch/no-catch rulings in 2017, concern lingers in league circles regarding Riveron’s ability to apply relevant standards consistently and accurately in real time. The explanations provided by Riveron in connection with the Super Bowl LIII and Chargers-Chiefs plays potentially amplifies the concern that the effort to prevent another Rams-Saints outcome will result in other situations involving far less clear and/or obvious interference calls and non-calls being overturned, when they just shouldn’t be.
So, yes, this will continue to be a major potential problem as the NFL’s 100th season approaches. And if the procedure is applied the way that Riveron seems to believe it should be applied, the league’s first three-digit campaign could be remembered for the regular torrent of four-letter words that it provokes.