NFL must awaken to reality of reviewable pass interference calls

1 Big Thing: Late pass interference penalties deserve review (2:41)

Scott Van Pelt thinks the ramifications of pass interference calls late in games mean they should be reviewable. (2:41)

Late in the 2015 Grey Cup -- the Super Bowl of the Canadian Football League -- Edmonton receiver Derel Walker was open deep down the right sideline. His team was scrambling to overcome a 20-18 deficit, and a catch would put the Eskimos in scoring position.

As the ball approached, Ottawa defender Brandon Sermons slammed into Walker and shoved him away. The pass fell incomplete. The Edmonton sideline erupted to protest an obvious instance of pass interference. Coach Chris Jones challenged the no-call, and the CFL replay official quickly overturned it. Having rightfully advanced 37 yards, the Eskimos soon scored the championship-clinching touchdown.

"Had the coach not had the ability to challenge that, we might still be talking about that call," CFL senior vice president of football Glen Johnson said recently. "So guess what? He challenged it. We fixed it. It was the right thing, and no one talked about it for more than a week after the game. They just remember that it was a great game and the right team won."

And so goes what seems to be a reasonable and achievable vision for the NFL, which to this point has refused to consider adding pass interference to its list of reviewable plays. I've been endorsing the concept for a couple of years, using the CFL's three-year experiment as a model, and think it's a far less scary proposition than traditionalists suggest.

The stateside discussion reached new heights after Week 6 was pockmarked a series of obviously incorrect pass interference decisions, most notably the pinned arm of Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones on his team's final offensive play in a loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

The average defensive pass interference call this season has cost teams 14.5 yards, making it the most impactful penalty in football. In Week 2, the Detroit Lions lost 66 yards -- one of the longest penalties in the NFL's modern era -- on a pass interference call against the Green Bay Packers. Coaches who don't like giving opponents one free yard, much less 66, have begun advocating for change.

New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said this week that he hopes the NFL competition committee will discuss the idea in detail this offseason. Falcons coach Dan Quinn said he is "certain" that will happen, and he should know: Falcons president Rich McKay is the committee chairman. I have my doubts about whether enough NFL owners would agree to cross the threshold into reviewing "judgment" calls. But the time is approaching when the league must recognize that technology provides a solution to the problem it has created: HD viewers at home can see missed penalties that once went unnoticed on old-school broadcasts.

To be sure, the CFL struggled at first to align its vision with reality. There were some early hiccups -- overturning calls that seemed debatable at best while upholding others that were clearly wrong -- before it found what Johnson considers to be an appropriate space. He has pushed CFL replay officials to use the same high standard the NFL does in replay, to overturn only "clear and obvious" mistakes.

Of course, some level of contact occurs on every passing play. The NFL rule book calls for pass interference when that contact "significantly hinders an eligible player's opportunity to catch the ball."

No one -- not the CFL, not the NFL, not me or you -- wants to see replay officials agonizing over whether contact was "significant." What should make perfect sense to the open-minded, however, is making replay available as a safety net when an official -- who is human, and thus makes mistakes -- completely misses major contact.

That's what happened Sunday in Seattle, when Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman pinned Jones' right arm long before the ball arrived on a fourth-down incompletion that ended the Falcons' final possession. The non-call wasn't so much a matter of judgment as it was a case of officials simply not seeing it. Had pass interference been reviewable, the replay official could have quickly fixed what was a clear and obvious mistake.

Some have noted that Jones smacked Sherman's helmet to help get off the line of scrimmage. So should replay fix that as well? And wouldn't that open a slippery slope to scouring every play for possible missed calls?

No, no, no.

Again, the idea here is not to use replay to evaluate the judgment on whether Jones hit Sherman hard enough to merit an unnecessary roughness penalty, or whether he illegally put his hands to Sherman's face. Reasonable people can disagree on that. Regardless, illegal hands to the face is a 5-yard penalty. At 14.5 yards per pop, pass interference penalties can have an outsized impact on a game's outcome, and it should be classified separately.

The point is to save games from being changed by easily correctable mistakes, just as replay already protects against obvious errors on catch rulings, fumbles and other objective assessments.

Alarmists use the slippery slope argument as a shelter. They're like the people who bought stock in dial-up internet companies as broadband was being introduced. Protecting familiar territory can't stop progress, and the NFL has a clear choice here.

The league can make an incremental and productive change or acknowledge that it's not going to officiate games as well as it could. What would you prefer?