Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Rich Eisen, the popular NFL television and radio host.
It was an overcast 30-degree night at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, a classic setting for an exhilarating finish to the Week 15 Thursday game. Despite entering the contest having won nine of their previous 10 games, the Chargers still needed a victory to have a chance at the AFC West title that the Chiefs, thanks to their wunderkind eventual MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, would eventually win.
Just not on that night.
Coming back from a 14-point first-quarter deficit, Philip Rivers somehow, some way, had his team stationed on the Kansas City 10-yard line down seven points with 13 seconds to go. Rivers flipped one in the end zone to Mike Williams and Chiefs defensive back Kendall Fuller got flagged for interference. It was a huge penalty, turning a Chargers’ 3rd-and-goal from the 10 into a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
On the next two snaps, Rivers connected with Williams, one for his second touchdown of the night and then on a remarkable two-point conversion dice roll by Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn. Los Angeles won and celebrated in the Kansas City cold, providing Friday morning coast-to-coast water-cooler material that’s the envy of every other major American sports league.
Cut to last week—six months later, almost to the day—to a hotel conference room in June gloomy Santa Monica. Video of the defensive pass interference call on Fuller was now up on a screen and the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron had a video game remote controller in his hands, toggling the play back and forth. I was in the audience as part of the NFL Media Group’s annual talent symposium, hanging onto every word coming out of Riveron’s mouth during his presentation to the group.
Our jaws were about to drop.
You see, between that Thursday Night Week 15 monster finish and our annual symposium to prepare us for the 2019 regular season, a seismic event took place at the Superdome that’s still reverberating across the football landscape. Yes, the ending of the NFC Championship Game between the Saints and the Rams. The mother of all blown calls, leading to the mother of all course corrections: the NFL allowing pass interference to be a reviewable penalty under the auspices of instant replay in a one-year experiment.
Look, I’m not gonna lie. I’m not spending a good chunk of my downtime to bang out about 3,000 words for my good friend Peter King and post them on a special day in my life (more on that in a moment) just to BS you. That non-call in the NFC Championship Game in New Orleans was the worst non-call I’ve ever seen. It was a terrible day for the NFL and Al Riveron, and all the NFL executives making the rounds to present at all the summer symposiums for CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and NFL Network know it.
So when Riveron stepped to the mic at the NFL Network gathering last week and finally matriculated his way to the pass interference replay portion of his two-hour presentation to the group, it was like a large piece of filet mignon steak being plated for the whole room to consume. It not only offered a remarkable glimpse of the difficult task his officials will undertake in 2019, but also how unintended consequences of the new replay wrinkle might cause occasional confusion and frequently stoke fan anger anew.
As Riveron laid out the rules—two days before the Competition Committee voted unanimously to install them—here is how adjudicating offensive pass interference (OPI) and defensive pass interference (DPI) calls and non-calls via instant replay will happen in the one-year experiment.
- Coaches still get two replay challenges per game with a third challenge awarded for getting the first two challenges correct. Coaches still can’t initiate a review in the final two minutes of a half or overtime. The replay official at the stadium will handle whether a play should be reviewed during those time periods. If the game is a nationally televised game like Thursday Night, Sunday Night or Monday Night Football, Riveron might chime in.
- When an OPI/DPI penalty or non-call occurs, there will be two standards as to what constitutes upholding or overturning an OPI/DPI penalty or what merits installing a penalty for OPI/DPI should one not get called, as happened in the NFC Championship Game. The two standards are:
- “Clear and obvious visual evidence” a foul occurred (in the case of a non-call) or didn’t occur (in the case of challenging the correctness of a flag). If a flag was thrown on a play or a team is looking to get a flag installed through replay and no “clear and obvious visual evidence” is provided by the network TV shots or can’t be discerned, then a flag (or non-flag) will stand as called.
- The contact clearly and obviously seen must “significantly hinder” the player being fouled.
- On Hail Mary plays, replay officials will not buzz down to the field and place the play under review unless they witness something that goes beyond what officials normally see on the field on such plays. In other words, the way officials will officiate a Hail Mary will not change and it might require an actual Hail Mary prayer to earn a buzz from the booth on a football Hail Mary in 2019.
The tough part will be actually making it work week in and week out, with as few bumps in the road as possible. And doing it all in front of a viewing audience that really only wants these decisions to come into the fray when something egregious like NFC Championship Game crops up.
From what I witnessed at the symposium, it is not going to be easy for anyone. And Riveron made sure we all understood that. For about 20 minutes, Riveron screened a half-dozen plays for OPI and DPI and asked us to decide what to do in real-time just as his officials will have to do. There wasn’t consensus in the room once. Not once.
For instance, Riveron would show a sequence involving a possible offensive pass interference, pause the play and ask the room if we would throw a flag for OPI. Half of the room would say “yes” and the other half “no.” Then, he would ask us if there was no penalty called, would we, as the replay official, put a flag down on the field for OPI. Half the room said “yes” and the other half of the room said “no.” Riveron’s well-taken point: not everything in this endeavor is going to be so glaring and easy to correct as the NFC Championship Game non-call. In fact, that’s going to be the outlier with the norm being iffy, hair-line penalties to uphold, overturn or, in the case of correcting non-calls, actually create out of whole figurative yellow cloth.
But wait, there’s more.
Before flashing back to that Thursday in Kansas City, remember the moment in Super Bowl 53 when Rams quarterback Jared Goff threw deep into Patriots territory to Brandin Cooks and New England corner Stephon Gilmore broke up the play? It happened with Rams down seven and 4:24 left in the game; Goff threw a soul-crushing interception on the very next play. At the March owners meeting at which replay was initially okayed to include pass interference, the Competition Committee admitted Gilmore’s contact should have drawn a flag. But had the new replay protocol for interference been in place then, would the league want replay officials to throw a flag on a humongous play in the biggest game of the year? You bet it would. Riveron confirmed it; this play was the penultimate piece of video shown in his presentation. So if this experiment does last only one season, it sure could go out with a bang in the next Super Bowl.
Let’s return to that Mike Williams-Kendall Fuller play that ended Week 15 and started this column. It was the last play presented by Riveron.
And it was a doozy.
Don’t worry, Chiefs fans. Riveron didn’t reveal that the DPI call on Fuller was incorrect and your team got hosed that Thursday. It’s much more complicated than that. And Chiefs fans might be the only ones NOT upset by what I’m about to reveal.
Remember, the Fuller contact with Mike Williams occurred with mere seconds to play in regulation and had featured the naked-eye triple-play for a replay official to buzz down to the field: thrown flag, visable clear and obvious contact and a significant hindrance appearing to take place. Indeed, Riveron said a play like this will cause a replay official to buzz down to the field and stop play from continuing in 2019. And that’s where things got wild.
If that play went under review that night under the rules we are going to see in place this year, Riveron said the Fuller DPI penalty would have stood as called because there wasn’t any clear and obvious visual evidence in replay to overturn it or even uphold it. However, because replay rules require everything that’s eligible for review to be reviewed once the replay process begins, they would have called OFFENSIVE pass interference on Williams.
Riveron pointed out that the Chargers receiver could be seen to have made a clear and obvious push off on Fuller, who was significantly hindered on the play. So, thanks to the new replay rules including OPI as reviewable and the existing replay rules mandating everything that’s possible for review to be reviewed once the process begins, there would have been offsetting penalties installed via instant replay. The Chargers would have had to replay the down of 3rd-and-goal from the 10 but with only eight seconds to go this time.
Yes, you read all that correctly.
The Santa Monica hotel conference room went wild.
If every review for DPI opens up the play for review for OPI, how many of these calls will wind up with offsetting penalties? No one knows. If the methods for opening a DPI or OPI to review require on terms like “clear and obvious” and “significant hindrance,” won’t replay officials in different stadiums perhaps have different interpretations of the clauses? Hopefully not.
The new rule that allows pass interference to be reviewed by replay was birthed by one of the worst non-calls in sports history and was created in the spirit of closing a loophole to make sure egregious miscarriages of sports justice would never happen again. The new rule was not passed to create unintended consequences and cause yet more stoppage of a brilliant live-action sport to parse crucial late-game plays frame-by-frame like Zapruder had filmed it.
To their credit, every single NFL executive in the room admitted they understand this change might make irate fans even more so; especially those who thought nothing should have been done in the wake of the NFC Championship Game. The amount of discussion (read: handwringing) this topic has received from coaches and executives and owners and front office officials has been intense. But the mistake the whole country witnessed and the city of New Orleans still laments left such a mark, the league felt something had to be done. I agree. “We missed the call,” Riveron told the gathering. We all noticed his use of the word “we” to share in the responsibility of the game officials who despite being in perfect position to make the call somehow did not.
Perhaps this will go off without a hitch. The Canadian Football League has allowed these calls to be reviewed the last five years and last I checked that league is still standing. Perhaps more tweaks will be needed to make it all work in the National Football League. Perhaps it will be one-and-done after a long NFL100 season. Either way, we are in a brave new officiating world and every football man, woman and child is entering this brave, new football world together.
1. I think I’m okay with turning 50. Yes, today is my 50th birthday. I was 26 years old when ESPN hired me and first introduced me to many of you by perching me on a SportsCenter set. I’ll never forget that day: March 16, 1996. The Saturday of the first weekend of March Madness and I was on the 6 p.m. ET edition of SportsCenter with Larry Beil. I had 10 highlights on my portion of the rundown for that quick half-hour long show, but had only seen one prior to heading down to the set. And I remember thinking to myself: “I have two choices—either I pee down my leg or I don’t.” I thankfully chose the latter and my career was born.
Every now and then, thanks to Scott Van Pelt’s highlight vault, videos of those days will appear out of nowhere and tweets remarking on my hairline fill my timeline. It feels like a different lifetime. I met my wife Suzy in the newsroom there and met many lifelong friends in Bristol, including my dear friend Stuart Scott, who I’m also thinking about today because he never had the chance to celebrate a 50th birthday. Which is why I’m asking for you to think about him today too by donating to the Stuart Scott Memorial Cancer Research Fund on the Jimmy V Foundation website. You should also give his two awesome daughters Taelor and Sydni a follow on Twitter too and keep up with everything going on with his legacy.
I’m going to have some ice cream today and turn my pillow over to the cool side tonight thinking of Stuart while celebrating life the way he always did—by not thinking of age, but of what you can do with your time in your day and age.
2. I think you’re going to love the NFL100 show I taped a couple of months ago at NFL Films. The NFL100 campaign celebrating the 100th season of professional football kicked off with the remarkable Pete Berg directed Super Bowl commercial featuring dozens of NFL stars and Hall of Famers. Next up, a series of NFL Network TV shows airing this fall, including the show I hosted. Everyone who was on the set over the two-day shoot was sworn to secrecy, but here’s what I can tell you—it’s among the most satisfying projects in which I’ve ever been fortunate to take part. And that includes launching NFL Network, my own daily TV/radio simulcast and the aforementioned ESPN SportsCenter gig. You’ll hear more in about two weeks, including one thing people are going to lose their minds over. Wait til you hear who one of the analysts on the six-week-long show will be. Wish I could tell you more now. But you’re going to love it.
3. I think few people know that Robin Williams was the original choice to play Ray Kinsella in “Field of Dreams.” I know I didn’t when Kevin Costner came on my daily TV/radio simulcast “The Rich Eisen Show” the Friday before Father’s Day and dropped that nugget. The story of how he wound up in the role and why the director Phil Robinson waited for him to pop free to take the role is amazing. In fact, the whole 25 minute interview is must watch, what with the stories he told about Robert DeNiro and Sean Connery from the set of “The Untouchables” too. Give it a watch when you have a chance.
4. I think that next up on the Competition Committee’s hit list needs to be fixing the cockamamie rule that awards the football to the defense when the offense fumbles the ball into and out of the end zone. Regular readers of this space know that, a few weeks ago, Peter asked several NFL people about which rule change they’d like to institute and I didn’t hesitate to bang out a few words on this subject and send it in. Now, I can expand on it.
Just imagine a future Super Bowl, perhaps even the next one in Miami. It’s a tight contest, one of those games where you know the team with the ball last is going to have a chance to win. And the team with the ball last is down, let’s say, by 4 points and driving down the field. The defense protecting the lead is on its heels, perhaps even gassed by the action that’s left the entire country enrapt and exhilarated. Thirty seconds to go, a receiver snags the ball on a crossing route over the middle and has the pylon in his sights. He dives for it, knowing a field goal isn’t enough. He gets hit, the ball, inches from the pylon gets jarred loose and it lands past the pylon and kicks right out of bounds behind the pylon. By rule, the ball goes to the defense. And the Super Bowl is over.
How satisfying would that be? Exactly. It would be terrible. Also, enjoy explaining all that to the millions of casual fans watching their first game of the year at Super Bowl parties across the nation what in the hell had just happened. Also enjoy knowing that if the loose ball had landed out of bounds mere inches up the field in front of the pylon, the ball would have stayed with the offense. It just a dumb rule, especially since it benefits the defense on its heels rather than the offense trying to make an aggressive scoring play. I say a ball fumbled into and out of the end zone should remain with the offense and if you’re looking to penalize a team for it, back them up to the 20-yard line. Make it a reverse touchback. Not loss of possession. It’s outdated, it’s ridiculous and, one day, it’s going to create one hell of a mess in the biggest game of the year. Let’s head that off at the pass, shall we? Change the rule.
5. I think HBO’s “Chernobyl” might be the best miniseries I’ve ever seen. Do yourself a favor and check it out. Just make sure the kids are in bed. And that you save yourself some time. It’s a bit tough to binge because you need a few minutes before diving in for another one. But, take the time to watch it. It’s important television. Plus, the Russians don’t want you to see it.
6. I think my first overall pick in a fantasy draft should I be fortunate to get one is Saquon Barkley. Everyone else at the position scares me from injury (Gurley) to rust (Bell) to vulturing (Kamara). Maybe Zeke would make me think twice, but Barkley would be my pick.
7. I think, that said, Sony Michel is going to have a monster season for the Patriots. As in threaten-the-single-season-team rushing-record monster season. Lost amongst another historic performance by Tom Brady, Michel’s playoff numbers were through the roof—336 rushing yards and seven total touchdowns in three games. With Gronk swearing he’s not coming back, I’m thinking New England will lean on Michel, who had 931 rushing yards in 13 games (but just eight starts) last year. The Patriots team record for most rushing yards in a season isn’t held by Curtis Martin, by the way. It’s Corey Dillon who ran for 1,645 yards on 345 carries in New England’s Super Bowl season of 2004. Keep this in mind. Just sayin’.
8. I think some NFL fans need to recalibrate their negative attitude towards paying quarterbacks. Just because a quarterback hasn’t won a playoff game or even played in one doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be in line for a record-breaking contract. I’m looking at you, NFL fans who think Carson Wentz isn’t worth a 30-million-dollar a year contract. Who cares if he hasn’t been able to finish the last two seasons? Who cares if Nick Foles was the one who hoisted the Lombardi for Philadelphia and that he appeared to operate the offensive controls better than Wentz in 2018? Wentz deserved every penny he got paid simply because it was his turn. It’s what the market bears in the NFL these days for young quarterbacks who show promise during their first contract.
You too, Cowboys and NFL fans who think Dak Prescott isn’t worth a 30-million-dollar contract. Prescott may struggle at times. He may struggle in big spots at times. But he’s won more than he’s lost. He’s actually won a playoff game, which separates him from highly paid quarterbacks named Wentz, Matthew Stafford, Jimmy Garrapolo and Kirk Cousins just to name a few. And just like once upon a time it was Stafford’s turn to get paid on a second contract and it was time for Garrapolo to get locked up before he needed to get paid and Cousins got oddly pizzaid on a yearly franchise basis by the Redskins before it was his turn to get paid in free agency, it is now time for Prescott to get paid. What do you want the Cowboys to do? Let him walk? You know who would snap him up and pay him like he wants? Someone else. Because he’s shown ability to win, has a potentially huge upside and, yes, it’s his turn.
9. I think people need to put their shoes on when they’re flying. Since Peter frequently opines on travel, I figured I should include something here. Don’t take your shoes off on a plane, people. It is not OK. You are not in your living room. You are on the same tube as scores of other people who shouldn’t have to worry about whether your hygiene is up to snuff. Also, you have NO IDEA what people drop on a floor on an airplane. This means if you’re someone who exposes bare feet when on an airplane—you need to check yourself. And be put on a no-fly list.
10. I think I’m going to choose the Patriots to repeat. I know those are dirty words to a lot of NFL fans. And, as if some of you aren’t outraged enough, I’m thinking about taking them to beat the Cowboys in Super Bowl 54. I have about two months to go until I have to make my prediction on the 2019 Season Preview edition of NFL GameDay Morning, but this is the way I’m leaning right now. Anyone who thinks I’m crazy, feel free to chalk it up to my advancing age. Hope you enjoyed my pinch-hit for PK.