At one point, it seemed like a Magic 8 Ball was needed to determine whether replay review of a call or non-call of pass interference would result in the ruling on the field being upheld or reversed. It now appears that a Magic 8 Ball is needed to determine the standard that will apply.
The bar has moved up and down throughout the regular season. At some point between late August and Week One, someone apparently told senior V.P. of officiating Al Riveron to apply a more rigorous standard to overturning rulings on the field than the more literal test he intended to use. At some point in recent weeks, someone apparently has told Riveron to soften the standard.
Of course, that’s not how Riveron tells it.
“It is not being applied any differently than it was at the beginning of the year,” Riveron told a pool reporter after Sunday’s controversial decision to drop a flag for defensive pass interference under circumstances that essentially determined the outcome of the Dolphins-Jets game.
That technically may be accurate, if “beginning of the year” means “the preseason.” But the reality is that the standard was applied one way (the literal way) at first, another way (encompassing only egregious fouls) for a while, and a third way (the first way) more recently.
The numbers back it up. Via Mike Reiss of ESPN.com, pass interference challenges initiated by coaches in the first two weeks resulted in three of 12 prevailing. For Week Three through Week 10, only two of 41 prevailed. Since Week 11, four of 15 challenges resulted in a reversal.
“I don’t look at it by numbers and we don’t look at it by numbers here,” Riveron said. “We treat each one individually. That’s how we officiate the play on the field or review the play, for lack of a better term. If the numbers show one thing, we really don’t concern ourselves where we are that week, that month or that game. Again, we basically look at each ruling, at each call, at each play on an individual basis and then we apply the rule.”
The truth continues to be that, for weeks, Riveron did not overturn non-calls for pass interference when it seemed to be clear and obvious that the defensive player significantly hindered the receiver. When he does so now, he explains it by saying that the evidence of hindrance is clear and obvious, without reconciling that decision with other plays that should have triggered the same result.
The good news, if there is any, is that Riveron finally seems to be applying the standard as intended, with the postseason approaching. If he hadn’t adjusted his approach before the playoffs but then immediately did so at the start of the wild-card round, it would have been too glaring. By sliding the bar back down to its intended level before the single-elimination round, it won’t be nearly as jarring if/when the standard is applied as originally intended in January.
Of course, that will provide little comfort to teams that lost regular season games due to the higher standard. If the standard had been applied in a consistent manner all year long, the final standings may have been quite different.
And that’s the biggest problem with changing the standard on the fly. It undermines the integrity of the 256-game regular season, and it potentially results in a playoff tree that would have looked far different if a call or two or more had been resolved the other way and if, in turn, a game or two or more had a different outcome.