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Hail Mary plays could be exempt from replay review for interference

The NFL rushed to come up with new replay review rules for pass interference, and now the league may need to do some adjusting on the fly before the season begins.

The NFL’s decision to extend replay review to pass interference penalties may prevent another 2019 Rams-Saints outcome (if the coach of the team on the wrong side of the bad call still has at least one challenge left, and at least one time out), but it may not prevent another 1975 Cowboys-Vikings.

Some of you may remember that one. I remember it all too well. (As does Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy, who at the time was a student at the University of Minnesota.) The postseason game that resulted in Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach coining the “Hail Mary” phrase culminated in what appeared to be a two-handed shove by receiver Drew Pearson of Vikings defensive back Nate Wright, allowing Pearson to catch the ball and score the game-winning touchdown. (It didn’t help matters that Vikings safety Paul Krause sauntered into view too late to keep Pearson from scoring.)

If that ever happens again (and assuming that today’s NFL broadcasts would consist of sufficient camera angles to provide a definitive view of the push), the new rule aimed at preventing a major controversy in a postseason game (or any other game) possibly won’t apply. Via Judy Battista of NFL Media, the “tweak” (i.e., major surgery) of the new expansion to eliminate automatic review of pass interference calls and non-calls would also exempt from coach’s challenges the Hail Mary play.

That’s a somewhat convoluted way of saying Hail Mary plays would not be subject to replay review.

McKay, whose stubborn refusal to embrace the idea of replay review for pass interference calls and non-calls by hiding behind the boogeyman of “unintended consequences” led to a rushed process in March once he realized the votes were aligned strongly against his preference for the status quo, doesn’t seem to be concerned about the unintended consequences that will result from, essentially, using replay review to determine whether replay review can be used. Via Battista, McKay concedes that a “Hail Mary” play would have to be defined before it could be exempt from replay review. And McKay believes it won’t be difficult, since it would “involve time left in game, what is line of scrimmage, how many receivers in end zone.”

But here’s the thing, whatever the definition is, someone like Patriots coach Bill Belichick will devise a Hail Mary play that doesn’t fall within the scope of the definition of “Hail Mary,” allowing for the red challenge flag to become the Hail Mary to the Hail Mary and slowing everything down someone determines whether the play is reviewable and then reviews it for clear and obvious evidence of interference.

If, for example, a Hail Mary requires five players in the end zone, send four. If it’s four, send three. And if the rule is that only one player can be in the end zone, send one, fire it deep, and hope that as an unlimited number of defenders converge on the receiver, and that one of them commits interference.

The original Hail Mary play wasn’t like a modern Hail Mary play; Pearson simply ran a “go” route, Staubach pumped in the other direction, and then Staubach fired it into essentially a one-on-one situation. Although defenses surely won’t apply single coverage in those situations, adding extra layers of restrictions and definitions will serve only to make what should have been an easy fix (Sky Judge) far more complicated -- and far less successful -- than it should have been.