After further review, the NFL has a P.I. problem

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis (11) works for a coach against Los Angeles Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman (23) during the second half the NFL football NFC championship game Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in New Orleans. The Rams won 26-23. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

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New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis (11) works for a coach against Los Angeles Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman (23) during the second half the NFL football NFC championship game Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in New Orleans. The Rams won 26-23. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Anyone who has watched an NFL game knows that a pass cannot fall incomplete without a receiver making an upward flip of the hand, that flip having become the international signal for, “Throw the flag!” Long accustomed to the knee-jerk protestation, those who watch the NFL on a regular basis have come to recognize the difference between faux outrage and real outrage. Sitting on high in the Superdome press box Sunday, that was how we knew.

The Saints’ reaction to the third-and-10 pass Drew Brees directed toward Tommylee Lewis wasn’t just pro forma. Coach Sean Payton was tearing down the sideline before the ball had hit the turf. (Never mind that Payton is a famous griper. All coaches are famous gripers.) Payton’s response came too suddenly to have been a considered thing. His response was that of a coach whose team had just suffered the worst uncalled violation for pass interference in the history of the sport, which — let’s be honest — his team had.


We needn't debate the merits of the non-decision. There were none. It was an utter whiff. Even Nickell Robey-Coleman, the violator in question, agreed — having seen the clip on a reporter's phone – that he interfered. Coaches sometimes say that no single play wins/loses a game, but this one pretty much did. If a flag is thrown, the only realistic way the Saints aren't in the Super Bowl is if their kicker double-doinks a 20-yard field-goal try, and Wil Lutz isn't Cody Parkey.

So, then: Bad call. Worst call ever. Most devastating call ever. Let’s go to the replay and make it right. But … no. Pass interference, which can come as a 60-yard spot foul and be bigger than a turnover, isn’t subject to review. And now we ask:

Why isn’t pass interference subject to review?

The NFL's position – at least for now; the Washington Post reports this policy could, after the Superdome snafu, be subject to change – is that P.I. is a judgment call, and all judgment calls can't trigger a review or games would last five hours. (In other words, as long as a Big 12 game.) Nobody could or should go back and take a look at the hands of every offense lineman after every snap to see who might have been holding – because the answer would be, "all of them."

But fumbles are judgment calls, and they’re reviewable. Catches along the sideline are reviewable, and they are, too. So are measurements. All potential scoring plays get an automatic second look. The NFL has created a system via which the game’s biggest moments can be subjected to further scrutiny, which makes sense, while ignoring the basic truth that pass interference, either flagged or unflagged, can be the biggest thing that happens in any game on any given Sunday.

» Read: AJC's complete coverage of the Super Bowl in Atlanta

We stipulate that it’s almost impossible to play pass defense without fouling. Some degree of contact is allowed. (How much? Well, it seems to vary.) The NFL has turned its rules committee into a consortium of contortionists while trying to decide just what constitutes a catch – and again, catches are reviewable – while letting the parameters of P.I. remain unclear.

The Falcons will forever believe that the 49ers’ NaVorro Bowman interfered with Roddy White on fourth down of the NFC Championship game in January 2013. Falcons officials were amused that, come the next round of league meetings, Jim Harbaugh – then the 49ers’ coach – could be heard griping about the flag that hadn’t flown against the Ravens’ Jimmy Smith in the subsequent Super Bowl. (“Karma,” the Falcons’ folks laughed, though they weren’t really laughing.)

It’s understandable that the league is sensitive about the number of reviews. (How many were there in the fourth quarter of the Patriots-Chiefs game Sunday night? Fifteen? With 14 going the Pats’ way?) But it’s hard to make a case for using replay to right wrongs when the biggest wrong of all time can stand uncorrected.

And I know that the NFL can’t say, “Pass interference can’t be reviewed, unless it happens in the final two minutes of a conference championship and Sean Payton has a cow, and then it can.” But there has to be better way than for the league to shrug and say, “Our bad — but you still lost.”

For better or worse, replay has changed the way we view the NFL. We now expect close calls to be referred to a higher authority. When we’re told that an apparent foul against a receiver can go unpunished because, well, just because, we wonder, not for the first time, if the league that loves to act as if it knows what it’s doing has even the slightest clue.

Allowing pass interference to be reviewed might be seen as the opening of a can o’ worms, but what happened in the Superdome threw open a bigger can, this one full of steaming garbage. The NFL now has a big fat P.I. problem — P.I. as in “pass interference,” but also as in “public image.”

As iffy as the Patriots winning the Super Bowl after the Tuck Rule game was, at least there was a rule, and replay was involved. If the Rams prevail Feb. 3, I fully expect Sean Payton to bum-rush the stage and knock the Lombardi Trophy from Roger Goodell’s hands — and for this righteously indignant Saint to say, “Review THAT.”