NFL agrees to allow challenges on pass interference plays, whether or not a flag is thrown

The decision comes months too late for the New Orleans Saints and their fans, but the NFL decided Tuesday to change its rules regarding reviews of possible pass interference – whether a flag is thrown on the play or not.

The change, which will take effect this coming season on a one-year trial basis, passed in a 31-1 vote at the league’s spring meeting in Phoenix.

Under the rule change, coaches will be able to request a review of any pass interference call – or non-call.

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The change comes after the NFL faced a storm of criticism following the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 20 between the Saints and the Los Angeles Rams.

In the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, Rams defender Nickell Robey Coleman knocked into Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis before the ball arrived, but no interference penalty was called.

The missed call was viewed as a key factor in the Rams' being able to tie the game and then win it in overtime, to advance to the Super Bowl.

Team owners voted Tuesday to include such controversial plays in the officiating replay review system. Coaches still will have two challenges per game, and in the final two minutes of a half or fourth quarter or for all of overtime, the replay official can order a review of offensive or defensive pass interference.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell explained the move:

“I told the owners we need to get to a place, and I felt strongly we should have OPI [offensive pass interference] and DPI [defensive pass interference] and that we should be able to throw flags (that were not thrown on the field)," Goodell said. “Everyone in there finally got to understand through a long process and a lot of discussion, everyone wanted to get it right. Some had to remove themselves from long-shared views.”

“Everyone in there finally got to understand through a long process and a lot of discussion, everyone wanted to get it right. Some had to remove themselves from long-shared views.”

— NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

The competition committee, which recommends rules changes to the ownership, had been split 4-4 on adding interference penalties, particularly non-flagged ones, to replay. But they tweaked the proposal, and it remains part of the overall replay system, which was a critical component.

Only Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown opposed the decision, according to USA Today. The reason for Brown’s no vote was not disclosed.

Falcons President Rich McKay, chairman of the competition committee, said the analytics also played a role in the rules change. Of the 50 most incorrect on-field calls as determined by officiating director Al Riveron and his staff that were impactful, half of them were for defensive pass interference.

"We felt this was a place to start," McKay added. "There was a lot of discussion and definitely a block of people on the committee and in membership concerned about the ability to put a flag on. We got more comfortable as we worked it out that it would be captured in the replay system."

Saints coach Sean Payton, a member of the competition committee, reportedly helped convince owners that the change was needed.

“It's great when we can arrive at what we think is a good change," Payton said. "We wouldn't have any of these on the docket had it not been for one play. I don't think any of these would be on a replay discussion.

“It's great when we can arrive at what we think is a good change."

— New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton

After the NFC Championship Game, many Saints fans were furious – with some requesting that the Rams-Saints game be replayed and others requesting refunds on their ticket money.

The NFL said that replaying the game would be impractical, because it would have involved delaying the Super Bowl – a move it estimated would cost more than $100 million.

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The Rams went on to lose to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, which was played in Atlanta two weeks after the Rams-Saints game.

In other decisions at the NFL meeting:

-- Owners rejected a proposal to replace the onside kick with one play from scrimmage, and tabled a suggestion to require each team to have one possession in overtime regardless of what happened on the first series of the extra period.

-- They approved making permanent all kickoff rules implemented only for the 2018 season. Studies showed this player safety initiative worked.

-- They eliminated the blindside block in an effort to expand protection of a defenseless player. It is now a 15-yard penalty if a player initiates a block in which he is moving.

-- They agreed to allow teams to elect to enforce on an extra point kick or play an opponent's personal or unsportsmanlike conduct foul committed during a touchdown.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.