The NFL's pass-interference problem: What makes replay review so tricky

Yates: The human element of officiating will never go away (2:00)

The NFL Live crew is on board with new replay rules, but it has some concerns over officiating ruining the flow of the game. (2:00)

A replay remedy is now available if an NFL official misses a defensive back plowing into a receiver two seconds before the ball arrives. That's the easy part of adding pass interference calls (and no-calls) to the league's replay system on a one-year trial basis.

The hard part, of course, is navigating the dozens of other plays per game that involve clear contact but fall short of the mauling we saw at the end of the NFC Championship Game. What will the NFL do about those plays? How will it define a "clear and obvious" restriction on playing the ball, one that will guide its resolve to overturn decisions on the field?

The league is racing against time to establish that standard, a task that represents one of the most difficult hurdles in the history of league officiating. During the next few months, league executives must nail down an objective dividing line for a subjective judgment, a tightrope that would allow them to correct obvious mistakes while not disrupting the rest of the game. The process has begun with a series of team visits by senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron this spring and will ramp up next week when referees and their crews meet for their first offseason clinic.

These offseason efforts largely will dictate whether the NFL's replay expansion will survive its experimental first season or be crushed by skeptical coaches, players and fans.

"We're trying so hard to get every call right," Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden said recently. "But I think the harder we try, the more we might make this very difficult."

Gruden is among the NFL coaches who have expressed serious reservations about reviewing pass interference, comparing it to the way a cup of coffee can feel hot to one person but not to another. Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he worries about the repercussions of analyzing full-speed contact at "100 frames per second."

Those concerns can be addressed with clear communication from the league office on what will or will not be reversed in replay.

One of our first clues has come from retired referee John Parry, who joined ESPN this spring as an officiating analyst. In the past month, Parry reviewed video of Super Bowl LIII -- a game he refereed -- to count the number of pass interference decisions that could reasonably be challenged by a coach or examined by the replay official in the final two minutes of either half.

Parry identified three such plays, including one that in real time seemed to fit the nebulous area between completely obvious and totally incidental. It occurred with 4 minutes, 29 seconds remaining in the game as the Los Angeles Rams trailed the New England Patriots 10-3.

Rams quarterback Jared Goff lofted a deep pass down the right sideline for receiver Brandin Cooks, who was trailed closely by Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore. As the ball approached, Gilmore stuck out his right hand and executed a veteran trick of the trade, pinning Cooks' left arm. Cooks was unable to fully extend for the ball, and it fell to the ground at the goal line just before Patriots safety Duron Harmon slammed into him. NFL Next Gen Stats animation shows how the play developed:

In real time, the play looked like many others in a competitive NFL game: Two high-skill players battling for position, with a safety arriving to clean up. Parry's crew did not throw a flag. But the 19-year veteran referee said this week that a replay review of that play in 2019 would likely lead to a penalty on Gilmore. (As it turned out, Gilmore intercepted Goff on the next play.)

"I think video would show that his arm was contacted and restricted enough to bring a flag and create a pass interference," Parry said. "And that would have been in New England's red zone. So it would have extended the drive and maybe they put points on the board with four minutes to go. That would be a pretty impactful decision."

As one of the NFL's full-time referees, Parry was involved in early discussions about replay expansion this winter. At the outset, he is expecting Riveron and vice president of replay Russell Yurk to take a granular view of each play.

"Unless they change it all up," Parry said. "They're going to use slow motion. They're going to use frame-by-frame. They're going to be technical."

That approach could worry anyone who hoped this expansion would be geared toward only the most obviously incorrect calls, plays that 50 people in a bar would all agree needed to be changed. Gruden joked that he finally learned the definition of "egregious" because it was used so often during the March owners meeting. Zimmer lamented: "If we're going to go by the letter of the law in pass interference, I think that you're going to have a lot of games decided that way. These are huge penalties."

It would also lead to a larger bump in reviews than expected. Parry estimated that, if the NFL uses a relatively tight standard, total reviews could nearly double.

But the NFL could take some lessons from the Canadian Football League, which stumbled in 2014 after first adding pass interference to its replay system. Average reviews consumed more than two minutes. Replay officials examined every video frame for evidence of contact.

Darren Hackwood, the CFL's senior director of officiating, said it took several years to calibrate an appropriate definition for "clear and obvious." The league settled on the term "material impact" to describe contact on a receiver or defensive back that merited action. In a self-grading exercise after the 2018 season, the CFL determined that its replay decisions were 95 percent accurate.

"When we started out, we were trying to call pass interference from the booth the same way we would on the field," Hackwood said. "But five years later, we're really trying to limit ourselves to protecting against big mistakes. We're not looking for minor contact. One thing we've come to understand is there is a different standard for what's being called on the field and what we would call from the booth. When we finally came to that place, I think we were much better off than when we started.

"We want to take a very quick look. Is it blatant? Is it clear and obvious? Then we have to overturn. If it's anything deeper than that, we want the ruling to stand."

The CFL has incorporated several backstops to enforce that standard and avoid falling into a technical trap. One is adding a former player to the group staffing its Command Centre in Toronto. Rob Crifo played receiver in the league for seven seasons in the early 1990s and is, Hackwood said, "really good at judging how material the contact might be on a receiver." The CFL replay official still has final say over the decision, but Crifo's insight helps balance an overly technical analysis.

Another counterweight is a structure that never asks the replay official to stop a game on his own to review pass interference. Only a coaches' challenge can lead to such a review, even in the final two minutes of a game or overtime. "Our game is so passing heavy," Hackwood said, "that we would be slowing the game down a bunch of times if we allowed the replay official to do that. So it's on the coaches to challenge. Whatever the trigger would be to initiate a review [from the replay official], we would be going to it too much."

That point elevates a critical process the NFL also must address. In addition to determining the standard for overturning, the league also must decide what should prompt a replay official to stop the game in the final two minutes for potential review. Teams in a close game, running a two-minute offense, could throw a dozen or more passes in that time. Most will have some level of contact. Which ones should prompt a review? Keep in mind that about three-quarters of the league's replay officials have never officiated an NFL game on the field.


Goodell: Replay on pass interference will 'help get it right'

Roger Goodell is looking forward to instant replay on pass interference calls to help minimize human error.

Fair or not, Parry suggested that game situation will represent part of the guide.

"We'll definitely see a standard there," Parry said. "But I don't know if they know what it is yet. I do believe that, inside of two minutes, time and score, field position, down and distance will enter into this equation in some form. We probably won't know that until August or September. But if it's 28-7 with 48 seconds remaining, and there is a huge pass interference and the team in the lead has the ball, that may not get looked at."

Replay is only part of the answer for addressing mistakes in pass interference, however. Parry believes that changes to officiating mechanics are long overdue. Among his suggestions: Moving the side judge and field judge closer to the line of scrimmage to account for the NFL's turn toward shorter passes. That shift would minimize instances where officials are trying to judge pass interference while running up on a play.

"When we're moving as an official," Parry said, "our eyes are moving. So we have to get to where a deep official can be stationary prior to the impact of the play, where contact potentially is happening as well."

Ultimately, the NFL will begin addressing pass interference in the replay sector. Parry said he is "cautiously -- very cautiously -- optimistic" that it can be pulled off in a credible way this season. And the ability to correct blatant mistakes, Saints coach Sean Payton said, will overshadow any side consequences and hurdles.

"What's more scary?" Payton said. "Live through [the NFC Championship Game mistake] again? Or work through the kinks of putting a flag on the field [through replay]? I would argue that to go through that again would be more disturbing. Could you imagine?"

The NFL has chosen not to. Now the hard work begins.