EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.**
– At their annual meetings this spring, the members of the NFL's Competition Committee discussed 13 club proposals regarding changes to the league's replay system.
All of them dealt with expanding the number of, or the types of, plays that can be reviewed. The proposals ran the gamut from reviewing every single play to just reviewing hits on defenseless receivers or defensive pass interference – and most everything in-between.
After much consideration, the committee unanimously opposed all of them, with the exception of the one that the owners ultimately passed, allowing the use of replay to correct the game clock at the end of a half or overtime.
Giants president and chief executive officer John Mara, a 15-year member of the committee, strongly believes that largely retaining the status quo was the correct decision.
"Replay was intended to correct the big calls at crucial moments in the game, and that's why we expanded it a few years ago to review all turnovers and all scoring plays," Mara said in a recent interview. "And the replay was intended to review calls where there was objective evidence one way or the other – did the player step on the line, did the ball hit the ground? (It was not) intended for whether there was a material restriction to the receiver as he was running his route or whether there was a material restriction that could qualify as holding on the left tackle. And those plays look very different in slow motion than they do in full speed. We just felt like we would not be improving the game by expanding replay."
Mara voiced a particularly strong objection to a bid that would have empowered coaches to throw a challenge flag on any play for any reason.
"That, to me, was a ridiculous concept," Mara said. "I think that would put you in a situation where if there was a big play against you in a game - say a 79-yard touchdown pass - why wouldn't you throw a challenge flag and say the left guard or tackle was holding? I just don't think that's what we want out of this. Plus, we thought that it would have an impact on the on-field officiating. I think a lot of people felt like it would cause officials to throw more flags, because if everything was reviewable there wouldn't be that concern about whether they were accurately making the call or not. Part of the reasoning was that we want officials not only to officiate the games but to manage them, and part of the managing process is identifying some fouls that you don't necessarily want called but you want there to be a warning issued first. You don't want a flag thrown on almost every play. When it came to the floor (at the owners meeting) and was debated, all these proposals were defeated rather easily; there was not a lot of support."
Although not everyone is completely satisfied, the general consensus among members of the committee, ownership and the head coaches is that the current replay system works well.
"Is it perfect? Absolutely not," Mara said. "There was a lot of discussion about New England's proposal to require all stadiums to install goal line cameras. That might happen someday, but there's a lot of uncertainty about that, about where exactly they could be placed in each stadium, because each stadium is constructed differently, what would be the construction implications, what would be implications on sightlines for fans that are sitting in those sections, what would the cost be? It was incorrectly characterized by some as it just being about the cost of the cameras. And that is just not accurate. There are a lot of implications that have to be studied, so we're going to study it this year, and come back with some sort of plan if it can be done - this is how we would do it and this is what it would cost and this is the timeframe it can be done in.
"There were factors I never even thought about. What technology do you use? It's not as easy as just saying use the same technology that you're using now. Well, it's different in different stadiums, so there were a lot of things that have to be discussed. Plus, I'm not convinced yet that it's going to give you that much more of an accurate look to make it worthwhile. I don't know how many plays we had this year where there was a dispute about whether somebody crossed the goal line or not, and whether a different angle would have produced a clearer answer. I'm not convinced that's the case yet. So I think that will be debated quite a bit in the future, and it may happen at some point in time."
Mara reiterated what he said a year ago, that replay decisions will eventually be made at a neutral site away from the stadium.
"We had discussion about whether those reviews should be made from the command center in New York and the final decision made there or whether it's made by the on-field official," he said. "I still think that we're heading closer to a situation where those calls will ultimately be reviewed and determinations made by the command center, but I don't think we're quite there yet. But I think we are getting there."
Photo of members of the NFL's Competition Committee
Mara very much enjoys serving on the Competition Committee, which studies all aspects of the game and recommends rules and policy changes to NFL clubs. The committee meets for several days in Indianapolis and Naples, Fla. prior the NFL's annual meeting, where the owners vote on numerous rule, bylaw and resolution changes.
Aside from Mara, the committee members include Chairman Rich McKay (the Atlanta Falcons' president), as well as coaches Jeff Fisher of St. Louis, Marvin Lewis of Cincinnati and Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh, general managers Rick Smith of Houston and Ozzie Newsome of Baltimore, and executives Stephen Jones of Dallas and Mark Murphy of Green Bay.
Mara discussed numerous other Competition Committee-related topics:
- Although it didn't receive the attention it has in the past, the committee spent much time discussing player safety issues, an area where the league continues to make progress.
"Concussions went down 25 percent in 2014," Mara said. "If you compare it to 2012, it's a 36 percent drop. The one thing that does concern us is there's no reduction during the preseason. But the regular season is where we have seen a dramatic drop, and no one is quite sure as to why the preseason numbers have not (dropped). So it's something we have to continue to take a look at.
"The other thing that was gratifying was that the change in the rules, where we are trying to get players to lower their target a little bit, has not resulted in an increase in knee injuries. That had been speculated when the rules were enacted and every time you saw a knee injury after that as a result of a low hit, some people jumped to the conclusion that it was because of the change in the rules. But the overall number of knee injuries has not increased. The other thing that we looked at was is there a difference between Thursday night and Sunday games in terms of the number of injuries and we found there was no difference."
The player safety rules endorsed by the committee and approved by the owners, including amending the chop block rule (making it illegal for a back to chop a defensive player engaged above the waist by another offensive player outside the area originally occupied by the tight end); the "peel back" block (an offensive player cannot initiate contact on the side and below the waist against an opponent if: a) the blocker is moving toward his own end line; and b) he approaches the opponent from behind or from the side); players in a defenseless posture (extending it to receivers immediately after an interception); and a rule that will prohibit, on a punt, players on the receiving team from pushing teammates on the line of scrimmage into the offensive formation.
"That's something that's already prohibited on field goals and extra points for safety reasons," Mara said. "We just felt like it was the right thing to do on punts as well, because the same danger is there. But there was some opposition to that, and I think it ended up passing 24-8, and you need a minimum of 24 votes to pass."
- Increasing the number of playoff teams from 12 to 14 was discussed. It will not happen for the 2015 season, but could occur in the future.
"We did not believe that there were any competitive reasons not to do it," Mara said. "Not all of us are crazy about it, but competitively, the only thing that bothers us is the fact that only one team in each conference would get a bye, which gives them somewhat of an advantage. But we've seen in the past that the number one seed doesn't always make it through to the Super Bowl."
Regarding his own preference, Mara said, "I still would prefer to keep it the way it is, but I don't think it's the end of the world if we end up making the change."
- The committee also debated seeding the teams based solely on record and not automatically awarding a home game to division champions.
"Most people are opposed to that," Mara said. "They think that if you win the division, and I agree with this, you deserve to have a home game. You're going to have some years where it doesn't look fair because you know we've had 7-9 and 8-8 division winners, and teams that are 10-6, 11-5 have to play on the road as a wild card. But it doesn't happen that often and people seem to prefer the current system."
- A proposal to change the overtime rules so that each team would be guaranteed a possession "did not come close to passing (failing, 29-3)," Mara said. "I think most people are satisfied with the current overtime rule, which we changed a few years ago."
- A controversy developed in the playoffs when an apparent key catch by Dallas' Dez Bryant was overturned after a replay challenge in a divisional playoff game in Green Bay. The key question became, what exactly is the definition of a catch?
"We talked about that a lot and we watched more tape of more plays, and it is really difficult to come up with language that is significantly better than what we already have," Mara said. "We made an attempt to do so, but essentially we did not change the rule at all. We just tweaked the language a little bit, and it basically says that you have to have control of the ball until you clearly become a runner. And if you hit the ground, you have to be able to maintain control for some time period after you hit the ground. We spent a lot of time looking at the Dez Bryant play against Green Bay, and it is strikingly different if you look at it in slow motion vs. regular speed. Regular speed, you're not quite sure whether he made the catch or not. In fact, I would suggest that it looks like he did not make the catch. In slow motion, it looks completely different, it looks like he has the ball forever and then attempts to reach with the ball. Again, we were pretty divided as a committee as to whether that should have been ruled a catch or not, and nobody really felt that a rule change was warranted.