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NFL's instant replay quandary is about finding a solution that can win approval

Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman seems to deliver an early hit to New Orleans Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis late in the fourth quarter, thwarting a potential game-winning drive during the NFC Championship game on Jan. 20, 2019 in New Orleans.

ROBERT GAUTHIER, LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

By MARK MASKE | The Washington Post | Published: February 28, 2019

INDIANAPOLIS — Members of the NFL's competition committee spent the past three days at the scouting combine conducting long meetings at a downtown Indianapolis hotel, focused in part on trying to figure out whether there's a way for the league to solve the mini-crisis that has engulfed the sport since the officiating blunder in the NFC championship game that helped the Los Angeles Rams beat the New Orleans Saints to reach the Super Bowl.

Committee members will leave Indianapolis without a solution. Some of them expressed doubt that there will be major changes made to the NFL's instant-replay system this offseason.

But this was never about the competition committee coming to a consensus in late February on how to address that officiating gaffe and prevent it from be repeated. This was the beginning of the process, not the end of it. This was about determining whether there is a modified replay system or other tweaks to the officiating procedures that could generate the 24 votes among the 32 owners necessary to be ratified.

That will play out in late March when the owners gather in Phoenix for the annual league meeting.

"We'd like to not have the play that happened in New Orleans again," Denver Broncos executive John Elway, a member of the competition committee, said Wednesday. "So we're doing everything we can to try to limit those type plays. Whether it's done through an additional official or if it's done through replay, we're still exploring all the different options."

The committee met Wednesday with groups of general managers, coaches and players. That came after meetings Monday and Tuesday that included discussions among committee members of, along with other topics, the possible expansion of replay and officiating mechanics.

The committee has been adamantly against making judgment calls by the on-field officials, such as pass interference, subject to replay review. That reluctance was apparent again this week. New York Giants co-owner John Mara said he's skeptical that there are 24 votes among the owners for major changes to replay. Dallas Cowboys executive Stephen Jones said there is energy to the discussions about potential replay changes but the conversations have a familiar feel to them.

It's not clear what the competition committee will propose to the owners in March about replay and officiating. It's possible that the committee will not recommend major changes. But this is not only about what the committee proposes or recommends. The owners undoubtedly will have replay-related rule-change proposals put before them in March, given that individual teams can submit such proposals on their own. The discussions about replay and officiating will be had by the owners at the league meeting, and only then will it become clear whether any certain proposal or system can generate the support needed for ratification.

The New England Patriots in the past have proposed making all penalties, those called and those not called, subject to replay review under the coaches' challenge system. Other teams have proposed making personal fouls reviewable. The Baltimore Ravens have been previous proponents of expanding replay. Their coach, John Harbaugh, said Wednesday that the league should figure out a way to use technology to aid officials and correct obvious mistakes.

Those on the competition committee, in particular, fret about the unintended consequences of prospective rule changes, including the re-officiating of calls made by on-field officials. They want to keep games moving. They don't want to see a coach, simply because he can, throw a challenge flag on a game-winning touchdown and have the replay checked to see if the opposing right tackle might have been holding.

Replay was added as an officiating tool to fix the obviously wrong call that decides the outcome of a game. When the officials failed to penalize the Rams' Nickell Robey-Coleman for a blatant pass interference infraction on the Saints' Tommylee Lewis in the NFC championship game, the current replay system could not fix it. That has been the lasting image of an NFL season that, until then, had been about historically great quarterback play, high-scoring games and improved TV ratings.

"That's the play that everyone talks about," Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said Wednesday as he left a meeting of coaches and the competition committee. "But what's egregious to one coach might not be egregious to another coach. You can't correct everything. It's not gonna be perfect. But you like to correct plays like that that's obvious. So how do you get that done? That's kind of what we're talking through right now."

So is there a particular system that could actually work and could generate the necessary support among the teams to be approved?

"We don't know," Lynn said. "We're talking about it. If there is, we'll figure it out."

The Washington Post's Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.
 

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