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Is Jay Gruden prepared to handle the new “weaponized” pass interference challenge rule?

needing to think ‘outside the box’

Atlanta Falcons v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Jay Gruden answering a question about the new PI rules

Wow that is a good one, we’re going to have to have (Senior Assistant) Coach [Matt] Cavanaugh on the box watching very closely just for PIs, ya know and obviously other challenges that already are part of the game so it’s going to be a very stressful deal for us. It’s got to be obviously blatant for them to overturn a call or put a flag on a field. But, it’s something we’ve got to watch out for, these plays are huge and then you have to decide what play is big enough to challenge where you don’t want to waste a challenge, maybe on a 12 yard gain. But if it’s a 12 yard gain on 3rd down and 8, maybe you do if it keeps the drive going, it’s going to be something we have to discuss, when and how to use them. You also don’t want to be stuck with three time outs and three challenge flags at the end of the game and not use them, so it’s going to be an interesting dilemma for a lot of coaches – for all coaches.”

Jay doesn’t often compliment journalists for asking good questions, but he got quite animated when this came up. There’s good reason.

Consider this recent tweet from Charles Robinson:

Sporting News was one of many publications to weigh in with some opinions and analysis in the wake of this tweet and initial reporting from Yahoo Sports:

Such scheming would certainly violate the spirit of the PI challenge rule. The rule allows coaches to challenge offensive or defensive pass interference penalties or non-calls up until the two-minute warning of either half. Replay officials will be responsible for reviewing plays within the final two minutes and in overtime. Coaches will still have only two challenge flags for a game.

It doesn’t seem far-fetched that some coaches might look for ways to “game” the PI challenge. One criticism of the new rule is that reviewing plays in slow motion works to the advantage of the receiver. As four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman noted right after NFL owners approved the rule, “Every defendable pass looks like PI in slow motion.”

Remember that the flag can be thrown by the coach for defensive or offensive pass interference, and can contest either an incorrect call or a missed call.

Reading Jay’s response to the press conference question above, I get the feeling he’s only thinking in terms of missed or incorrect defensive interference calls. I wonder if Jay and his staff have really sat down and prepared themselves for this rule change.

This rule change will run deep. Rich Eisen recently wrote a very long, very detailed and very good article on the topic. He started the article by discussing the Week 15 Thursday night game in Kansas City from last season:

Coming back from a 14-point first-quarter deficit, Philip Rivers somehow, some way, had his team stationed on the Kansas City 10-yard line down seven points with 13 seconds to go. Rivers flipped one in the end zone to Mike Williams and Chiefs defensive back Kendall Fuller got flagged for interference. It was a huge penalty, turning a Chargers’ 3rd-and-goal from the 10 into a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line.

Cut to last week—six months later, almost to the day—to a hotel conference room in June gloomy Santa Monica. Video of the defensive pass interference call on Fuller was now up on a screen and the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron had a video game remote controller in his hands, toggling the play back and forth. I was in the audience as part of the NFL Media Group’s annual talent symposium, hanging onto every word coming out of Riveron’s mouth during his presentation to the group.

Don’t worry, Chiefs fans. Riveron didn’t reveal that the DPI call on Fuller was incorrect and your team got hosed that Thursday. It’s much more complicated than that. And Chiefs fans might be the only ones NOT upset by what I’m about to reveal.

Remember, the Fuller contact with Mike Williams occurred with mere seconds to play in regulation and had featured the naked-eye triple-play for a replay official to buzz down to the field: thrown flag, visible clear and obvious contact and a significant hindrance appearing to take place. Indeed, Riveron said a play like this will cause a replay official to buzz down to the field and stop play from continuing in 2019. And that’s where things got wild.

If that play went under review that night under the rules we are going to see in place this year, Riveron said the Fuller DPI penalty would have stood as called because there wasn’t any clear and obvious visual evidence in replay to overturn it or even uphold it. However, because replay rules require everything that’s eligible for review to be reviewed once the replay process begins, they would have called OFFENSIVE pass interference on Williams.

Riveron pointed out that the Chargers receiver could be seen to have made a clear and obvious push off on Fuller, who was significantly hindered on the play. So, thanks to the new replay rules including OPI as reviewable and the existing replay rules mandating everything that’s possible for review to be reviewed once the process begins, there would have been offsetting penalties installed via instant replay. The Chargers would have had to replay the down of 3rd-and-goal from the 10 but with only eight seconds to go this time.

If every review for DPI opens up the play for review for OPI, how many of these calls will wind up with offsetting penalties? No one knows. If the methods for opening a DPI or OPI to review require on terms like “clear and obvious” and “significant hindrance,” won’t replay officials in different stadiums perhaps have different interpretations of the clauses? Hopefully not.

Jay has strengths and weaknesses as a coach, but the most frequent criticisms leveled at him often have to do with in-game strategic management and clock management. I sometimes feel like Jay should have a “strategic advisor” on staff, whose job is to help Jay get a better result on these critical in-game decisions and clock management. A recent report by NFL Network said that, with head coach Dan Quinn of the Falcons taking over the duties of defensive coordinator, he added former head coach Bob Sutton to the staff to assist with strategic planning and in-game management. Perhaps the Redskins should consider something similar.

With as much as Jay has struggled with tactical game management, I wonder if he’ll be ready for the challenges and opportunities that the new pass interference challenge rules will bring?

The new rules, as explained by Al Riveron:

As Riveron laid out the rules—two days before the Competition Committee voted unanimously to install them—here is how adjudicating offensive pass interference (OPI) and defensive pass interference (DPI) calls and non-calls via instant replay will happen in the one-year experiment.

Coaches still get two replay challenges per game with a third challenge awarded for getting the first two challenges correct. Coaches still can’t initiate a review in the final two minutes of a half or overtime. The replay official at the stadium will handle whether a play should be reviewed during those time periods. If the game is a nationally televised game like Thursday Night, Sunday Night or Monday Night Football, Riveron might chime in.

When an OPI/DPI penalty or non-call occurs, there will be two standards as to what constitutes upholding or overturning an OPI/DPI penalty or what merits installing a penalty for OPI/DPI should one not get called, as happened in the NFC Championship Game. The two standards are:

1. “Clear and obvious visual evidence” a foul occurred (in the case of a non-call) or didn’t occur (in the case of challenging the correctness of a flag). If a flag was thrown on a play or a team is looking to get a flag installed through replay and no “clear and obvious visual evidence” is provided by the network TV shots or can’t be discerned, then a flag (or non-flag) will stand as called.

2. The contact clearly and obviously seen must “significantly hinder” the player being fouled.

On Hail Mary plays, replay officials will not buzz down to the field and place the play under review unless they witness something that goes beyond what officials normally see on the field on such plays. In other words, the way officials will officiate a Hail Mary will not change and it might require an actual Hail Mary prayer to earn a buzz from the booth on a football Hail Mary in 2019.