In no sport but the NFL do players, fans, coaches and general managers annually debate the rules of the game, advocating ways to make pro football better, safer, fairer.
Officiating is especially a hot topic around the league after a blown call late in the NFC championship game pretty much cost the New Orleans Saints a trip to the Super Bowl.
That capped a season which began with the long-awaited clarification of what constitutes a catch and then was marred by widespread confusion over what exactly is a legal takedown of the quarterback. While defenders learned new ways to tackle to avoid flags for even glancing blows to the helmet, they complained about O-linemen illegally blocking too far downfield in the run-pass option craze that has successfully seeped in from the college game.
Giants owner John Mara hears the cries to change the NFL’s replay review system after officials failed to flag the blatant pass interference penalty and a helmet-first hit by the Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman deep in Los Angeles territory in the NFC championship match. The non-calls helped Los Angeles force overtime and eventually win the game to reach the Super Bowl, leading to widespread displeasure with the current system regarding coaches’ challenges.
Mara said last month at the NFL combine that the powerful competition committee isn’t in a rush to change the replay system.
“I just don’t sense a lot of support to use replay to call penalties. I don’t sense a lot of support for the expansion of it, either,” Mara said. “We’re early on, so that might change, but that’s my sense of where we are right now. I’m not saying it won’t change.”
The Canadian Football League has allowed pass interference, either called or uncalled, to be reviewed for the last five years. But the NFL has long been reluctant to expand replays for officiating because it would slow games even further.
Other major moves will be considered by the 32 owners at the league meetings in Phoenix beginning Sunday.
Several teams are proposing big changes to replay and overtime after a season of consistent criticism of officiating and which plays can be challenged or automatically reviewed. Any change requires a 24-vote threshold to pass.
Just like the USFL did with the 2-point conversion and other innovations back in the 1980s, the Alliance of American Football’s debut this spring has brought novel ideas, some of which could find their way into the NFL rule book. Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, a staunch advocate for adding more replay reviews to the NFL, is a big fan of the AAF’s “sky judge,” an official watching from the press box level who can help call penalties from a bird’s-eye view.
“Look how tough it is for these officials, all right. I know as a coach, what’s the worst spot to watch the game from? Sideline. You see the least amount form the sideline. That’s why you put coaches in the box,” Harbaugh said. “OK. So we’ve got all this technology and the fans actually have a better view of the game from an officiating standpoint than the officials do.
“So these clear and obvious mistakes that are inevitably going to get made, it’s not just one play in a championship game; it happens every single week, because the job is so tough and moves so fast and the angles aren’t great,” Harbaugh added. “If we can put somebody up there in the box that has a better angle that can help officiate the game from up there, do that. If we can add more replay, let’s do that.”
Harbaugh said the league would save face by fixing a system everyone knows is flawed.
“So let’s add an official, let’s add two officials, let’s put one up in the box, let’s expand replay if we want. Let’s make sure that at the end of the day the fans walk out of the stadium and walk away from their TV sets knowing that was a good, hard-fought, well-officiated game and the outcome is as it should be and it was correct. The right team won the game.”
Players have their own ideas about ways to make the game better.
Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said the rules already in place need to be enforced, like flagging O-linemen who block too far downfield on the run-pass option plays that have become all the rage, leading to wide-open tight ends as linebackers come up to play the run.
“You can’t have guys 4 or 5 yards downfield and (the quarterback is) still throwing the ball,” Harris said.
“They’ve got to figure out the RPO stuff, but let me suggest a better rule,” teammate Von Miller said. “You know how you can’t hit a defenseless receiver coming across the field? I feel like edge rushers should have the same protection from chippers. I feel like it’s not fair.
“I’m looking right and I’ve got a receiver that shuffles in and blindsides me while I’m focusing on this play. I actually tore my ACL in a play like that in 2013,” Miller said. “I feel like the chips should be gone. I’m dead serious about that. You see guys get blindsided all the time.”
Miller said owners are eager to protect QBs and nowadays great edge rushers are getting paid just like franchise quarterbacks.
“We’ve got a lot of star pass rushers. All it takes is one of those plays and boom, that could be it for one of those guys,” Miller said. “This league is all about protecting the quarterbacks. How come they get protection and we don’t?”
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