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What if they had called pass interference on this play in Super Bowl LIII?

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NFL Senior Vice President of Officiating Al Riveron recently revealed this play would have resulted in a defensive pass interference penalty under the new rules for 2019...

New England Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore defends Los Angeles Rams WR Brandin Cooks in Super Bowl LIII, Feb. 3, 2019.
New England Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore defends Los Angeles Rams WR Brandin Cooks in Super Bowl LIII, Feb. 3, 2019.

Sometimes, one play, one moment, one decision can change everything — or maybe only a little bit. Either way, it can be fun to imagine the various timelines if one thing had gone differently. SB Nation NFL is looking at those hypotheticals, alternate universes, and made-up scenarios in our second annual “What If?” week. You can follow along with every story here.


Last week, the NFL released the final version of the language for the new rule regarding pass interference.

The rule was clearly a change in response to the no-call on Los Angeles Rams CB Nickell Robey-Coleman who blatantly interfered with New Orleans Saints WR Tommylee Lewis in the NFC Championship, but the ramifications of the rule change will be far and wide in 2019.

And today’s Football Morning in America guest piece from Rich Eisen underscores just how far and how wide.

We learned back during the NFL Annual Meeting that the owners approved allowing replay for pass interference for 2019. The rule change they were approving would have allowed for pass interference to be called on New England Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore defending WR Brandin Cooks in Super Bowl LIII:

Here’s the relevant section from Eisen’s piece:

Remember the moment in Super Bowl 53 when Rams quarterback Jared Goff threw deep into Patriots territory to Brandin Cooks and New England corner Stephon Gilmore broke up the play? It happened with Rams down seven and 4:24 left in the game; Goff threw a soul-crushing interception on the very next play. At the March owners meeting at which replay was initially okayed to include pass interference, the Competition Committee admitted Gilmore’s contact should have drawn a flag. But had the new replay protocol for interference been in place then, would the league want replay officials to throw a flag on a humongous play in the biggest game of the year? You bet it would. Riveron confirmed it; this play was the penultimate piece of video shown in his presentation. So if this experiment does last only one season, it sure could go out with a bang in the next Super Bowl.

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Perhaps this will go off without a hitch. The Canadian Football League has allowed these calls to be reviewed the last five years and last I checked that league is still standing. Perhaps more tweaks will be needed to make it all work in the National Football League. Perhaps it will be one-and-done after a long NFL100 season. Either way, we are in a brave new officiating world and every football man, woman and child is entering this brave, new football world together.

It’s going to be a seismic shift especially in the preseason as officials set a baseline for how they use replay for any challenges and especially when they invoke replay in the final two minutes of each half when they’re required to look at any potential interference (called or not, offensive or defensive) when coaches are prevented from challenging.

Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio wrote a long piece today using that play specifically to call out why the implementation of the new rule could be messy:

Is it clear and obvious that Gilmore significantly hindered Cooks? Gilmore definitely makes contact with Cooks, but Cooks still is able to nearly catch the ball. Yes, Gilmore hooks Cooks’ left arm, but Cooks still pulls his arm up and puts it in position for the reception, with only a legal blow delivered by Patriots safety Duron Harmon (and/or the impending blow from Harmon) causing Cooks to lose control of the ball.

So is it clear and obvious that Gilmore significantly hindered Cooks? I don’t think it is.

Flip it around. If pass interference had been called, would if have been clear and obvious that Gilmore didn’t significantly hinder Cooks? No. Which means that, regardless of the call, the ruling on the field arguably should stand.

Riveron obviously thinks otherwise. Unless the NFL plans to replace Riveron before the start of the season, he’ll be the ultimate internal authority on matters of this nature for 2019. Based on his mishandling of multiple catch/no-catch rulings in 2017, concern lingers in league circles regarding Riveron’s ability to apply relevant standards consistently and accurately in real time. The explanations provided by Riveron in connection with the Super Bowl LIII and Chargers-Chiefs plays potentially amplifies the concern that the effort to prevent another Rams-Saints outcome will result in other situations involving far less clear and/or obvious interference calls and non-calls being overturned, when they just shouldn’t be.

So, yes, this will continue to be a major potential problem as the NFL’s 100th season approaches. And if the procedure is applied the way that Riveron seems to believe it should be applied, the league’s first three-digit campaign could be remembered for the regular torrent of four-letter words that it provokes.

So yes, there’s plenty to look forward to, but today I’m looking back at this play.

What if they had called pass interference on Gilmore?

The following play, QB Jared Goff threw an interception as Gilmore covered Cooks. The Pats drove down and kicked a 41-yard field goal to go up by two possessions. But had PI been called, the Rams would have had the ball inside the 5-yard line down by just seven points. While the offense as a whole was inept that night, it’s not unthinkable that the Rams could have punched it in from that close and tied the game.

An alternate thereafter would have been completely different than what we experienced.

Would Patriots QB Tom Brady still have been able to drive the Pats down for a go-ahead score? Could Goff and the Rams’ offense have mustered a response after their first touchdown of the game?

What if?