The officiating debacle acknowledged by the NFL at the end of Sunday's NFC title game in New Orleans, which prompted widespread criticism from fans, players and coaches over what many deemed an outcome-changing call, could lead to a significant rule change. The league and its rulemaking competition committee plan to give consideration this offseason to making pass interference calls subject to instant replay review.
"It will be discussed at length along with additional fouls that coaches feel should be subject to review," one person familiar with the league's inner workings said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing public furor over the botched call in New Orleans.
A high-ranking official with one NFL team confirmed that making pass interference reviewable will be considered, adding: "And there will be discussion on [replay] review of calls and non-calls."
Any change would have to be approved by at least three-quarters of the 32 owners. The competition committee always has been staunchly opposed in the past to making judgment calls such as pass interference reviewable by replay.
But the outcome Sunday in New Orleans, which sent the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl, might be enough to change some minds. It represented one of the NFL's worst officiating nightmares, with a Super Bowl berth being determined in part by a blatantly missed call, as conceded by the league. An obvious pass interference penalty against the Rams went uncalled late in regulation and they beat the Saints in overtime.
So the Rams, not the Saints, will meet the New England Patriots on Feb. 3 in Atlanta. And the NFL must deal with the fallout from one of the most glaring officiating blunders in its history.
The non-call was not reviewable. Al Riveron, the NFL's senior vice president of officiating, told Saints Coach Sean Payton afterward that pass interference should have been called.
"They blew the call," Payton, a member of the competition committee, said after the game. "It's a game-changing call ... a tough one to swallow. ... How two guys can look at that and come up with their decision - we'll probably never get over it. The truth is - some of these losses - one like that - it's too bad."
The replay system is designed specifically to avoid having the outcome of a game determined by an obviously erroneous officiating decision. In this case, it was even worse for the NFL. It was a Super Bowl spot that was determined.
The game was tied at 20 with less than two minutes remaining in regulation. The Saints were driving toward a go-ahead score when quarterback Drew Brees threw a pass in the direction of wide receiver Tommylee Lewis. Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman plowed into Lewis well before the football arrived. The pass fell incomplete.
Instead of having a first down via the penalty and being able to score a touchdown or drain the clock before kicking a field goal, the Saints had to kick a go-ahead field goal then. That left the Rams with time to kick a tying field goal in regulation. They prevailed, 26-23, in overtime.
Robey-Coleman actually could have been penalized for an illegal hit on Lewis in addition to pass interference. Instead, there inexplicably were no penalty flags thrown. Robey-Coleman acknowledged after the game that he should have been called for pass interference.
"Oh, hell yeah," Robey-Coleman said, upon being shown the play on a reporter's phone. "That was P.I."
A variety of calls are subject to replay review, but previous proposals to expand the scope of instant replay have failed. The competition committee has been particularly adamant about not wanting what it considers judgment calls to be re-officiated, frame by frame, by replay.
But there are a few dynamics at work. The league already seems to have acknowledged that, with the NFL now so pass-happy, interference calls and non-calls can be particularly game-changing. And there are precedents for controversies in high-profile playoff games prompting rule changes. The NFL changed its overtime rules, first for the postseason and later for the regular season, to preclude a team from winning with a field goal on the opening possession of overtime after the Saints did just that against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game in the 2009 season.
It's not immediately clear if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will back prospective changes to pass interference and replay. Last year's modifications to the catch rule, which had created its own controversies over the course of the previous four seasons, came after Goodell called for changes to be made.
The NFL normally tolerates officiating controversies relatively well, reasoning that they actually keep fans talking about the games and are far less threatening to the overall well-being of the sport than turbulence over polarizing off-field issues. But in this instance, the outcome of a conference championship game was affected. And conversation about the quality of the NFL's officiating continues to intensify amid what was otherwise a feel-good season for the league and owners, with historic offensive numbers and recovering TV ratings.
The competition committee generally intensifies its deliberations in the weeks after the Super Bowl and makes rule-change proposals to the owners in advance of the annual league meeting in March. Any change would take effect next season.