Goodbye, pass interference replay review: Lessons learned from the NFL's failed officiating experiment

The NFL's half-baked idea to review pass interference is dead. The rule failed so miserably, in the words of league executive vice president Troy Vincent, that it won't so much as appear on the agenda for an owners conference call Thursday to vote on rule proposals.

Writing its epitaph should be quick and easy. Addressing the still-present problem, and the core ineffectiveness it revealed, is a more difficult task, one that will be addressed by a new leadership team that is still forming.

"At the end of the day," ESPN officiating analyst John Parry said, "the NFL does not have a safety net to fix a game-changing egregious miss heading into the 2020 season. That can't be in today's world."

Oh, but it is. At best, owners will put in place a preseason experiment to test their next idea: expanded communication between the existing replay assistant in the press box and the referee on the field, with a much more limited menu of calls available for consultation. Barring a reversal born of the same impatience that fueled the 2019 pass interference review failure, a true sky judge won't be considered for the regular season until 2021.

To be fair, the NFL's primary challenge this season is simply making sure it has a season of some kind amid the coronavirus pandemic. Any achievement beyond ensuring games seems quaint in its pre-pandemic expectation. If there were ever a year to stand down on a big policy swing, it's 2020.

Those circumstances, however, don't mitigate the fact that the league will go at least two seasons without an effective response to the problems revealed by the missed pass interference foul in the 2019 NFC Championship Game. And, no, this is not your moment to point out that officials can't be perfect. As we've noted in the past year, the state of NFL officiating requires a safety net just to give it a chance to be consistently good.

That's why coaches have long advocated for a sky judge with wide-ranging latitude to help, rather than making incremental additions to replay review. Even as he supported last season's rule, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton predicted a long-term future with sky judges making real-time judgments and corrections.

"We're going to have a point," Payton said. "It's not this year, not today, but an eighth official upstairs is going to allow this game to flow. He's going to buzz that buzzer when he feels a certain level of mistake has been made."

But before the NFL can move to a solution, it must understand the problem. At the moment, there is no reason to think that a sky judge would work any better than replay review of pass interference. In knee-capping and ultimately sabotaging last season's rule, the league proved unwilling or unable to do the work of defining what "a certain level of mistake" is.

As you might recall, the league entered its 2019 league meetings sharply divided on what, if any, response was required to the championship game miss. The competition committee had long resisted reviewing subjective decisions, even as the Canadian Football League, among others, was making its way through the same space. So when commissioner Roger Goodell pushed through the experimental one-year rule, there were plenty of doubters -- most notably competition committee chairman Rich McKay.

Speaking diplomatically recently to reporters in Atlanta, McKay said: "I'm not sure that when we set it up, we didn't know that the result could go this way. Because reviewing subjective fouls is going to create disagreement in my mind."

The key to success was establishing a reasonable standard for the level of contact required to add a foul in review, or to take a flag off the field. Even as McKay and others questioned whether it was feasible, the NFL put that job in the hands of senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron, whose authority extended to making the final call on every replay review from the league's New York command center.

Riveron's struggles to find a standard were evident as early as Week 2, when he failed to add a flag to an obvious miss in a Monday Night Football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers. Whether in reality or appearance, or both, the NFL punted the rule from that point on.

For most of the season, Riveron appeared to be using an impossibly high standard for overturn. I've spoken to two knowledgeable officiating sources who independently identified about 50 pass interference calls that Riveron judged incorrectly on any reasonable scale of review. Overall, the NFL reviewed 101 pass interference calls or non-calls and overturned 24.

CFL executives said it took nearly three years before they found a comfortable standard for reviewing pass interference. The NFL couldn't be that patient.

"I think the theory behind what the league voted on certainly had a chance to be successful," Payton recently told 105.7 FM in Baltimore. "But quite honestly, we weren't ready in New York to handle it. And I know that sounds critical, but that's just a fact. The consistency and the ability to take in the calls and at least come up with a fairly level basis of what we're going to interpret that call on. And if we're not ready there, then we shouldn't have it. And I think that's the feeling that all of us have right now, including myself."

In the end, the NFL barreled into this experiment unprepared and split at best on its potential efficacy -- a classic case of preferring the appearance of a solution rather than doing the hard work of building one that would work. Doubling down on a sky judge too soon would risk a repeat of the 2019 disaster.

Instead, the NFL has focused its offseason on realigning the leadership structure that contributed to the problem. It in essence demoted Riveron and replaced him with a committee of executives who all report to Vincent. Longtime assistant coach Perry Fewell joined the league office in a role that league sources described as supervising the officiating department's day-to-day operations, an unusual job for someone who has never officiated. But in practice, retired referee Walt Anderson -- hired as senior vice president of training and development -- has assumed control over the tasks normally charged to the NFL's officiating chief, from hiring and firing on-field personnel to making crew assignments.

"From what we can tell," said NFL Referees Association executive vice president Scott Green, "Walt is basically running the day-to-day operations as we've always known it, whether it was Mike Pereira, Dean Blandino or Al Riveron."

Anderson might well be a bridge to the next generation of leadership for the officiating department. The NFL tried to rehire Blandino this spring, but the sides could not reach an agreement.

Whoever runs the operation in the long term, however, will know that replay review of pass interference is dead, as is the likelihood of any near-future expansion into reviewing subjective calls. To that, I say good riddance for a league that isn't ready to handle it. This revelation doesn't alleviate the problem, but for the already-stressed preparations for the 2020 season, we should consider it addition by subtraction.