Did an uncalled pass interference penalty rob the Redskins of a win against the Texans?
That was the inquisitive headline that USA Today posted the day after Washington's heartbreaking 23-21 loss to Houston in mid-November. After quarterback Alex Smith had broken his leg, the Redskins fought back only to have a late-game opportunity thwarted, when referees chose not to throw a flag on an apparent defensive pass interference involving wide receiver Josh Doctson.
Should that same play have happened a year later, the Redskins would have had an opportunity to throw the challenge flag, have a missed penalty enforced and win the game – Dustin Hopkins would have had an easy go-ahead field goal – and the team's playoff trajectory might have taken a different arc during the final six weeks of the season.
Now, at least for 2019, that theory will be a real possibility. On Tuesday, NFL owners agreed nearly unanimously to approve a rule change that, for one year only, expands the reviewable plays in Instant Replay to "include pass interference, called or not called on the field."
"We had a couple calls that we seemed were blatant that weren't called this year that cost us games that, you know, changes our season quite a bit if we get those calls," Gruden said. "You just want to be right, I think the competition committee is approaching it the right way."
The rule change is in large part a reaction to the missed pass interference call in this year's NFC Championship game, in which the Rams committed a blatant penalty that was never called. It's a major change for the league, which has typically strayed away from judgment calls, but felt it must change its philosophy to ensure more correct calls on the field.
As head coach Jay Gruden explained at the NFL Annual Meetings in Phoenix this week, a lot of gray area remains in how pass interference will be interpreted by officials and the replay centers.
"The obvious ones we are trying to make sure that we get right. The 'bang-bang' ones are the ones you are going to have an issue with," Gruden said. "There is still going to be what I call a blatant pass interference call, is not what Coach [Mike] Tomlin thinks is blatant, or what Coach [Jim] Harbaugh thinks is blatant, or what my brother thinks is blatant. So a lot of these plays that show, 'Yes that is PI, now that's not PI, that's not blatant,' that's not something that should be buzzed down and overruled."
Entering the week, the Redskins had proposed a few rule changes, specifically one that would allow all plays on the field to be reviewable, including missed calls. That may ultimately be adopted in the years to come, but for now, "pass interference" will be a good case study, especially considering it can dramatically affect the outcome of a game more than any other penalty because of its yards penalized potential.
Reports from the competition committee, and something Gruden reiterated when asked whether he could take the temperature of the head coaches meeting on new rules, were that nearly every head coach was passionate about the issue and wanted some kind of change passed.
"I think there is no doubt that everyone wants the game called properly," Gruden said. "No one wants to see what happened in the New Orleans [Saints] and [Los Angeles] Rams game…how many opportunities do you want them to have to stop the game and call these things? I think the error is what still makes the game kind of fun actually, I don't know, but it's a tough deal."
That error will be a point of contention this season. What one coach considers blatant might be incidental to a referee. Expanding replay will have its growing pains, especially on judgment calls, which have existed since the start of the NFL. Gruden, like many coaches, knows there will be discrepancies, but is glad the league is trying to make the right calls.
"I think there is no doubt that everyone wants the game called properly," Gruden said. "I don't think there will ever be a true solution. You don't want this thing to be over-ref'd or overcalled either. You don't want games to be four or five hours because they look at every play, but you do want to make sure those plays are called right. They have an impact on a season, on a profession."