NFL's new pass interference replay rules open Pandora's Box of odd scenarios

AP PhotoRams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman blows up Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis towards the end of last year’s NFC Championship Game. The referees didn’t call pass interference, potentially costing New Orleans a trip to the Super Bowl.

FOXBOROUGH — Imagine this scenario for a moment.

It’s opening night, Sunday Night Football, the New England Patriots are hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers in front of a huge national television audience. At some point during the game, Patriots receiver Josh Gordon runs a deep route against Steelers cornerback Joe Haden, and while the ball is in the air, the players collide and the ball falls incomplete with no flag.

Bill Belichick isn’t happy, he feels like Haden interfered with Gordon, so he takes advantage of the league’s new rules that allow coaches to challenge calls or non-calls on pass interference. He throws a flag, the refs take a look at the play, and after review they actually decide that Gordon was the one who committed pass interference.

The Patriots “win” the challenge and keep their timeout, and for their trouble they’re awarded a 10-yard penalty.  

Sounds outrageous, right? Well according to NFL officials, that’s a scenario that could conceivably happen in a game this season.

Tuesday afternoon, NFL referee Ron Torbert explained the NFL’s new rule changes for the upcoming season during a presentation to the media at Gillette Stadium. The biggest changes relate to the league’s decision to make pass interference calls and non-calls reviewable, and according to Torbert’s explanation of the policy, the referees have wide discretion of the calls they can make once a review has begun.

“Once we are into the review we can review any aspect of that play that is reviewable,” Torbert said. “Pass interference by one player, if that was challenged, we would look at any reviewable aspect of that play, which might include whether the other player committed pass interference. The team that’s challenging wouldn’t determine specifically what we look at, we would take a look at any reviewable aspect once we are in review.”

In other words, just because a team throws a flag against one specific call doesn’t mean the referees won’t look at other things too. That could potentially open up a Pandora’s Box of unexpected outcomes, one that may inform a team’s challenge strategy going forward.

On paper, the pass interference review rule is a good one. The end of last year’s NFC Championship Game was a disaster and plays like that obviously should be correctable. The key to the new rule working as designed is the phrase “clear and obvious evidence” — as in, “there must be clear and obvious evidence that contact ‘significantly hindered’ or ‘did not significantly hinder’ an opponent” in order for a call to be changed.

This feels straightforward, and during the preseason most challenged calls have been upheld on review. But as we’ve learned from seasons past, sometimes strange calls get made even after extensive review.

What will happen if high-profile challenges start leading to overturned calls because of unrelated fouls away from the play? Will coaches start regularly challenging non-calls away from the ball? Is that something we want?

And yes, what if a challenge backfired on a team? The mockery from Twitter would surely be swift and intense, but if it’s any consolation, the team would “win” the challenge, at least officially.

“If we change any aspect of the ruling on the field, the team wins the challenge, even if they didn’t get precisely what they wanted,” Torbert said. “If we change a portion of the ruling they are considered to have won the challenge and would not be charged a timeout.”

One of the most interesting storylines of the season will be how these rule changes affect the game. If implemented well, pass interference challenges should only be used on clear and obvious calls that any rational person with a set of eyes could see is wrong.

But if not? Who knows what kind of craziness we might see.

Mac Cerullo can be reached at mcerullo@northofboston.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.

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