EAGAN, Minn. -- For Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, the act of throwing his red flag onto the field this preseason will be less about winning the actual challenge, and more about understanding what exactly the officials are looking for this season as they work to establish a baseline for a new rule that makes pass interference calls reviewable by instant replay.
“My red flag is probably going to get emptied out in the preseason,” Zimmer said with a laugh early in training camp. “We just have to figure out how they’re going to call it.”
Staying true to his word, Zimmer tossed his red flag in last week’s preseason opener at New Orleans, and you can expect more of that the rest of the preseason.
He wanted the officials to take a closer look at a play in which Saints wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith was blocking upfield in the area of a completed pass. He felt like there was a good chance it could have been deemed offensive pass interference, though he lost the challenge upon further review.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take to work out,” Zimmer said, joking that it’s going to be “fun” to see how officials handle everything. “That’s why I’m probably going to throw my red flag.”
This came about after a controversial no-call on Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman late in the NFC Championship Game last season. He slammed Saints wide receiver Tommy Lee Lewis on a crucial play in the red zone, no pass interference was called, and the Rams went on to advance to the Super Bowl.
That ignited an uproar on social media, with Saints coach Sean Payton leading the charge, and in response, the NFL passed the new rule to make pass interference calls reviewable by instant replay. In conjunction with the new rule, the replay official, not the coaches, will initiate the review after the two-minute warning, after scoring plays and during overtime.
“We are instructed to call it just like we normally would on the field,” longtime NFL official Jerome Boger said during a presentation to reporters at the Vikings’ camp Thursday. “Nothing really changes for us. We just work it how we always work it, and then if it goes to review, we will look at it more closely.”
If a particular play ends up being reviewed, Boger said a reversal of the original call would only happen when it’s “clear and obvious” that a player “significantly hinders” another player’s ability to make a play on the ball. He also admitted that the officials are “feeling our way through it” throughout the preseason.
“They are obviously trying to fix the play that happened in the NFC Championship Game,” Zimmer said. “Well, there were a lot of other plays throughout the course of last season that weren’t quite like that.”
That’s the biggest concern about the new rule: Will this open the door for constant challenges regarding something that has rarely been an issue in the past?
“I’m pretty sure it won’t be every single play,” Vikings safety Anthony Harris said. “I feel like it’ll mostly just be used in situations that could change the outcome of a game.”
That said, Harris doesn’t expect the new rule to affect the way he, or anyone else, approaches any particular play during a game.
“You obviously take the rules into consideration,” Harris said. “You just can’t make that the main focus. You just have to go out there and play and not to worry about it too much. As long as we use proper techniques, we will live with the results.”
That seems to be the general consensus on both sides of the ball, especially considering both defensive pass interference and offensive pass interference are reviewable by instant replay.
“Just go play and see what happens,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “If that ball is in the air, I’m not thinking, like, ‘Oh shoot. I can’t have pass interference here.’ I’m just trying to go get the ball. It might happen, it might not. I guess we’ll see.”
There’s a good chance this preseason will be used as a trial period for everyone involved, similar to how the uptick in roughing-the-passer calls last preseason caused a minor craze before settling down once the regular season rolled around.