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The NFL’s latest attempt to get it right will surely go wrong

The pass interference review rule change does nothing to address the NFL’s underlying problems with officiating and complexity.

Super Bowl LIII - MVP & Winning Coach Press Conference Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The NFL got it right. The game has been plagued for years by calls that ran the gamut from borderline bad to downright horrendous. Games were won and lost due to officiating, and taking the step to make pass interference calls and non-calls reviewable will make some dent in the number of mistakes that crews make. It may prevent another horrendous missed call like the one that screwed the Saints, which was a delight for Falcons fans but deeply concerning for anyone who wants football to be adjucated fairly.

The NFL also got it wrong. They got it wrong because they did it the only way the NFL knows how to do anything, which is urgently reacting to one facet of a larger problem only when someone makes a big enough stink that the hyper-rich men at the top suddenly get hornets in their slacks. This time it was because of that call against the Saints, the lobbying and prolonged wailing of Saints fans, players, owners, and coaches, and head coaches across the league realizing that there was an opportunity to actually get the league to attempt to clean up an officiating issue. Again, we may think the reactions of Saints fans were overdone in light of how many times other NFL teams have been screwed over by blown calls, but it was effective in causing a change that should actually decrease the number of awful pass interference calls in football. That’s something that should be worth celebrating.

Yet I can’t celebrate because the NFL has not changed, and that makes me wary of all the ways this seemingly positive change could go awry. They’re still employing officials who are in over their heads, the same ones who missed some unbelievably obvious calls in the playoffs and have done so for years. They aren’t making sweeping changes to all the other ways they’ve fundamentally changed the game, meaning you’ll have men in stripes trying to figure out a way to wave away Marcus Lattimore’s fourth consecutive Patrick-Swayze-in-Ghost hand usage on deep passes with 1:45 in a game and happily throwing flags at defensive tackles trying desperately not to put 10 pounds of pressure on a quarterback in the second quarter. And they’re now asking these officials to be hyper-vigilant about their interference calls to avoid blowing it, which could turn the final two minutes of every game into a slog of deep passes and minutes-long reviews.

In other words, the league has added scrutiny and pressure to the jobs of officials who are already under enormous pressure and reviled for their track records for just one possible set of penalties, based largely on a single play that went so poorly for the NFL that they’re scrambling to look like they’re doing something about it. All the other many ways that an overly complex and vague rulebook has screwed up this game will go uncorrected and unremarked upon, and all the other penalties both called and uncalled that have cost teams games will be unchanged. The same coaches that pushed so hard for this change will almost certainly see their players nailed with pass interference calls they wouldn’t have received before, and they may find the benefits of review are matched by the drawbacks when the underlying officiating problems are not addressed.

I hope I’m wrong about this, and this rule change both improves pass interference calls and doesn’t slow down games. But given the NFL’s ham-fisted track record in this and most other regards, you’d be right to be skeptical about that.