Photo courtesy of Samuel.monson / Flickr

2018 Championship Games Make the Flaws of NFL Rulebook Clear

The NFL’s youth movement has provided a level of excitement surrounding the sport of football that has been absent for a long time. In recent years, the playoff rounds prior to the Super Bowl have mostly felt like a foregone conclusion. From 2013 to 2017, nine of the 10 No. 1 seeds made it to the Super Bowl. Often, it seemed that these teams were simply in a class above the rest, and familiar faces like the New England Patriots often had no legitimate competition.

However, much of that seemed to change this year, as young stars like Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Los Angeles Rams’ wunderkind head coach, Sean McVay, led an offensive revolution. 2018 was the highest scoring NFL season of all time, with the average team scoring 23.3 points per game. This season also included arguably the greatest NFL game of all time, a Week 11 Monday Night Football contest between Kansas City and Los Angeles, which ended in a 54-51 Rams victory. It was the third-highest scoring game in NFL history and the first in which both teams scored 50 or more points.

For many, the game was the defining moment of a season in which creative offenses incorporating complicated pre-snap motions thrived. McVay’s Rams sent a receiver across the formation on almost every play, forcing the defense to adjust and giving Los Angeles a multitude of play-calling options. It’s a major reason why the Rams are making their first Super Bowl appearance since 2002, and seemingly every coach with a connection to McVay is getting head coaching interviews. Teams are hoping to replicate his offensive success, which will only serve to elevate the NFL’s brand and produce more high-scoring contests.

However, even as games become more exciting and the league begins to enter a new era of offense, two major issues in the league rule book which detract from the game itself came to the forefront in the NFC and AFC Championship games on January 20: massive errors in officiating crucial plays and the current overtime rules. It was the former that doomed the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game. The top-seeded Saints faced off with McVay’s Rams in a rematch of a Week 9 Saints victory.

With the game tied at 20 and under two minutes remaining, New Orleans was positioned to score with the ball at the Rams’ 13-yard line. On 3rd & 10, Saints quarterback Drew Brees targeted wide receiver Tommylee Lewis on a wheel route along the right sideline, but Lewis was knocked off of his feet by Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman before the ball arrived. It was clearly defensive pass interference, but the officials decided not to penalize the play.

Had the play been reviewed, New Orleans would have had a first down at the spot of the foul and been able to run the clock out to attempt a game-winning field goal. The Rams would not have had the chance to get the ball back. But due to the blown call, they were able to possess the ball, tie the game, and win in overtime after a Drew Brees interception. Many have argued against making a play like this reviewable in the past. However, this blown call directly affected the outcome of the most important game of the season to date.

A common argument against making penalty calls reviewable is that it would slow down the game and make it less entertaining. However, a rule change would potentially still require coaches to challenge plays like this one, meaning the number of plays reviewed per game would likely remain the same. Additionally, all reviews come from the booth in the final two minutes of each half, meaning egregious calls that directly affect the game’s result in crucial moments could be overturned to ensure there is no room for controversy.

Instant replay is a wonderful tool that has helped officials correct hundreds of calls over the years. However, if penalties are not reviewable, it leaves massive room for error regarding making the right call. There is no reason  the NFL should not utilize instant replay to its fullest potential. By utilizing a central replay center like the NBA does, the NFL could eliminate glaring, game-altering errors by giving the league the final say on crucial replays. If a rule change is implemented in this fashion, it could change the league for the better and benefit teams and fan bases as a whole.

If the correct call had been made in the NFC Championship game, the Saints would be in the Super Bowl. Instead, New Orleans saw its season end in heartbreaking fashion for the second straight year. Even from the Rams’ perspective, their victory will always be credited to the officials and tainted by controversy.

Another issue was brought to the forefront in the AFC Championship game: the league’s overtime rules. The current rules state that each team has the opportunity to possess the ball, as long as the team to possess it first does not score a touchdown. While this is far superior to the sudden-death overtime rules employed for so long, the rules are still deeply flawed. The team that wins the coin toss has a far greater chance to win the game; all they need to do is score a touchdown on the first drive.

This was the case in Sunday’s game between the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs. After the Chiefs erased a 14-point halftime deficit, the two teams went back and forth in the fourth quarter, with four lead changes in the final 15 minutes. After New England took a three-point lead with less than a minute remaining, Patrick Mahomes drove the Chiefs down the field for a game-tying field goal and forced overtime. However, the Patriots won the coin toss, received the ball, and scored a touchdown to win.

Mahomes and the Chiefs never had the opportunity to respond, leaving fans feeling robbed of what could have been a more exciting ending. While it is true that Kansas City missed plenty of opportunities that could have prevented overtime, its offense buoyed a horrendous defense all year, and the opportunity to possess the ball could have changed the game’s result.

This is not a new problem. This exact situation has played out in the playoffs on multiple occasions. In 2014 and 2015, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers lost in overtime in playoff games without possessing the ball, falling to the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals. In Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcons lost the coin toss in overtime and the New England Patriots claimed the Super Bowl title on a touchdown run by James White. Numerous times in recent years, teams have been unable to respond to their opponent’s scores in overtime in the season’s most crucial contests.

This is fundamentally unfair for a number of reasons. The team that loses the coin toss is essentially asked to do twice as much as its opponent. In order to win the game, the team that plays defense first must get a defensive stop and then score, while the team to play offense first can end the game without having to play defense. In many cases, overtime is still sudden-death, with only one possession occurring.

There is a simple solution. The NFL should adopt a modified version of the NCAA overtime rules. Each team should get a possession starting at, say, midfield, with an opportunity for the team possessing the ball second to match or beat its opponents overtime scoring. Another option is to alter the current rules and simply allow a touchdown to be matched by the opposing team, giving each team a fair chance to win the game. The winner of overtime games can essentially be decided by a coin toss, but an improvement or overhaul of the overtime rules could change the game for the better and enable teams to have an equal opportunity for victory.

The overtime rules are unlikely to be changed, at least for this upcoming offseason. However, it is conceivable that pass interference could become reviewable in the offseason, which would be a positive change eliminating room for controversy. The 2018 NFL season can only be described as exhilarating, proving that the NFL is headed in the right direction. However, alterations to the rules outlined above could make football even more popular, benefitting the league, its players, and its fans. These changes should be embraced and implemented quickly.

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