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Report: NFL considering allowing challenges of officials’ judgment calls

It’s not just fans of the Rams and Chiefs that are calling for a change — and the NFL might be responding

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the NFL is likely to consider a rule change for 2019 — one that would allow coaches to challenge incorrect judgment calls by officials.

According to Schefter, what is being considered is a plan where coaches would have a limited ability to challenge these calls. If the officials’ judgment call is not overturned on review, the team making the challenge would be penalized or have time run off the clock.

Schefter said that the penalty disincentive is being considered as part of this rule change to ensure these challenges are used only rarely, and will not be abused by coaches.

This is all mostly in response to the egregious pass interference no-call in the NFC Championship Game between the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams, where with 1:49 remaining and the score tied at 20-20, Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman ran into Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis well before a pass from Drew Brees arrived at the Rams three-yard line.

If the obvious pass interference penalty had been called, the Saints could easily have scored a touchdown to win the game in regulation; it was a third-and-10 play, and without the penalty, the Saints had to settle for a field goal. Instead, the Rams tied the game on a 48-yard field goal with 11 seconds left and won 26-23 in overtime.

In Saints country, the outrage is palpable. The New Orleans City Council is weighing a resolution demanding the NFL review its rules. Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards has written a letter of protest to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy made an impassioned speech on the Senate floor complete with a snazzy visual aid. New Orleans Congressman Cedric Richmond has called for Goodell to testify before a House committee. Saints ticket holders have filed lawsuits alleging mental anguish and fraud.

But while their elected representatives have — thus far — largely remained silent, Kansas City Chiefs fans are a little salty, too. At least two calls in the AFC Championship Game between the Chiefs and New England Patriots have them riled up.

One was the muffed punt in the fourth quarter that was recovered by the Chiefs’ Gehrig Dieter and run in for a touchdown. On review, the officials determined that Julian Edelman had not touched the ball, which made the ball dead at the spot where the Dieter had first touched it.

The other was the roughing-the-passer call on Chris Jones in the fourth quarter, which turned a third-and-7 at the Patriots 28-yard line into a first-and-10 at the 43. The Patriots ultimately scored a touchdown on the drive.

Only the second one of these might have played out differently if the rule change reported to be under consideration had been in place —- the first call was reviewed under current rules — and there's no guarantee the officials would have changed their minds about whether Jones deserved the penalty. Even if they had, it’s not completely certain a reversal of the penalty would have altered the outcome of the game.

Just the same, the questionable officiating in the two conference championship games have NFL fans — and editorial writers — calling for change.

On Tuesday, New York Times editorial columnist Frank Bruni — definitely not a sportswriter — wrote that "somnambulistic referees" had tarnished the Super Bowl, saying that whether the Rams or Patriots win on Sunday, "the team will have an asterisk after its name."

Bruni’s column — like Bruni himself — is politically-tinged. But he made solid points about the controversy.

Americans are so down on, and distrustful of, major institutions and authorities that we’re primed to declare their fraudulence, and the National Football League and the Super Bowl are on the receiving end of that. They’re not fresh targets, not by any stretch. But this time we’ve lost all sense of perspective.

Bruni agreed with Deadspin columnist Tom Ley, who said that watching the NFL now “requires you to sit on your couch for three hours and spend the whole time questioning if what you saw is really what you saw.”

The referees, the videotape and the fans have conflicting perceptions and wind up telling diverging stories — not just about the pass-interference bungle but about a roughing-the-passer penalty on a Chiefs player who, to my eyes, did nothing more than fail to blow Tom Brady an air kiss at the end of the play. That decision, too, was possibly game-changing, graduating Brady to a Super Bowl in which he may not belong.

Roger that.

And speaking of Roger, this kind of editorializing might be getting the NFL Commissioner’s attention — at least according to Schefter.

One source predicted the competition committee will figure out a way to get a rule like this passed, especially considering that it has the attention of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

It’s not breaking news when fans and sportswriters complain about NFL officiating. But when it gets attention in the editorial sections of major newspapers — and in the halls of Congress — that might be another matter.

At least for the moment, Roger Goodell isn’t publicly committing to anything. Speaking to the press on Wednesday in advance of the Super Bowl, he said the penalty the officials missed in the Rams-Saints game is one “that should be called,” and said he appreciates how Saints fans feel.

“We understand the frustration they feel,” he said. “Whenever the officiating is part of a discussion, it’s not a good thing. But we also know our officials are human.”

Goodell said that expansion of replay is under consideration, but can never be the final answer.

“Technology is not going to solve all these issues,” he maintained. “The game is not officiated by robots, it’s not going to be. But we have to continue to go down that path.”

It will be worth watching whether the proposal Schefter is reporting actually gets any traction when the NFL Competition Committee meets before the 2019 season. If it does, the next time a flag is thrown when Chris Jones blows a kiss — or a referee rules forward progress on a clear strip-sack — perhaps NFL teams will have some recourse to correct it.

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