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Anatomy of a replay gone wrong

NFC Divisional Playoff: Giants at Packers

1st Quarter | 1:46 | Giants 10-3 | Packers ball | 1st & 10 @ NYG 39 | video (at 1:21)

We are going to deconstruct the big call from Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game, not to defend it, but to answer the questions surrounding it and the decisions that were made.

As the Packers were driving to answer a go-ahead touchdown by the Giants  in the first quarter, quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed a pass to receiver Greg Jennings. Jennings turned up field and gained about three yards when the ball came loose.

The loose ball was immediately scooped up by Giants cornerback Kenny Phillips. The play continues live, so Philips runs about 12 yards before going out of bounds.

(1) Keeping the play alive. In the live camera angle and all of the replay angles aired on television, veteran head linesman George Hayward and side judge Larry Rose follow the action as Phillips returns the apparent fumble. The audience was whisked away to commercial, not knowing that a conference developed between the officials.

(2) Post-play discussion. The more that instant replay has become entrenched in the game has lead to a new officiating anomaly: let the play go and sort it out in the end. There is some merit to that approach, as whistles do not have erasers, but a call-by-committee can always be enacted after the fact.

The only other official that could be involved in the play is the back judge, Scott Helverson. His position, unseen in the replays, would be roughly the center of the field, and probably 10 to 20 yards downfield, so that he doesn’t get passed like a stalled car. (There exists an outside  possibility that the field judge could have been involved, but he is patrolling the opposite sideline from the play.)

Probably Helverson saw something that gave him the impression that Jennings had a knee down prior to the fumble, or he would not have tried to appeal to the other two covering officials. In the end, the three officials came to an agreement that the play is down by contact prior to the fumble occurring.

(3) Why not just let replay sort it out? Replay is a tool to correct mistakes, not a crutch to buttress up flaky or indecisive calls. They must make decisions based on their observations in real time, and not what would be convenient for the replay system to sort out. Therefore, an official who, armed only with his observation, must make a decisive call (conferring with others if necessary) and stick with it. All of the officials that get playoff assignments are graded on their decisiveness in making calls, in addition to their on-field accuracy. Also, for an official to rely on the ability for a team to challenge a call deprives that team of one of their precious challenges.

(4) Giants challenge. Giants coach Tom Coughlin saw what we all saw from our favorite football-watching chair: Jennings lost control of the ball prior to being down. The challenge, had it been ruled in favor of the Giants, would have given them the ball, but the 12-yard runback by Phillips would not count, even though the officials originally let the play continue.

(5) Replay review. Up to this point, three officials were involved in the call. Now, referee Bill Leavy, in consultation with the replay official, will intervene on his sole judgement of the video. Leavy is allowed to observe one aspect of the play in one angle, and compare it to another aspect in a different angle. But, he only has 60 seconds to do so.

Remember, Leavy wasn’t covering the play, so some of that 60 seconds goes to getting the first visuals of the tackle.

To rule down by contact, the ball carrier must have a body part other than his hand or foot touching the ground while in possession of the ball. While the ball clearly came out prior to Jennings’ knee hitting, Leavy apparently focused on his shin. These are the angles he was served up:

Leavy should have noticed the position of the ball carrier’s elbow, because that could tell him when the ball was out in angle A and when the shin was down in angle C. The ball definitely came out prior to the shin contacting the ground.

(6) The call. In replay, the rule is that there must be indisputable visual evidence that the call on the field is to be overturned. If Leavy does not piece the angles together in time to make a decision, then he must leave the call as is.

As Leavy enters the field to announce his judgment, Helverson, the back judge, is seen walking with Leavy. Therefore, he must have been part of the original call.

After reviewing the play, the ruling on the field stands.

Had Leavy seen a body part on the ground prior to the ball out, he would have said the call was “confirmed.” Because he said it “stands,” it means that Leavy did not see conclusive evidence or his allotted review time expired.

(7) But what if the play was initially ruled a fumble? If the fumble and the runback were ruled initially, and the Packers challenged, then what? In this hypothetical, Leavy would have likely ruled the same: inconclusive evidence. The Packers would have lost the ball, the Giants would have been entitled to the 12-yard runback, and the Packers would not have had kept their touchdown drive going. It could have been a huge momentum shift in the game.

(8) The league responds. Rather than give a full-throated defense of Leavy, NFL spokeman Greg Aiello e-mailed a tepid response to Pro Football Talk, citing sections of the rulebook.

Referee Bill Leavy conducted the instant replay video review and determined that there was no indisputable visual evidence to warrant reversing the on-field ruling of down by contact.  As a result, the ruling on the field stood.

What was said was true, in a plain, matter-of-fact fashion. What was not said is plainly visible behind the sheer curtain. The league backed up its employee’s judgment call. Nowhere in this response is Carl Johnson, the league’s vice-president of officiating.

Although the league is pretty staunch in its defense of Leavy, they will audit the video from the replay machine. The officiating department has a recording of the 60-second replay session, as well as any communication between the field and the replay booth.

(9) The bottom line. I don’t see any way this can be resolved by changing anything in the replay system. There have been suggestions to move all replay reviews to a central “war room” at the league’s offices in Manhattan, much like the NHL conducts its replay reviews at the home office.

However, it is still up to human judgment which is not without mistake. Who are the supervisors of the officials that make these decisions? They are former referees — referees just like Leavy. So at any given time, the same judgment is rendered.

Also, football is a complex sport. The referee at least has the opportunity to consult with the covering officials prior to viewing a replay. Sometimes there are many aspects of a replay reversal that need to be announced, which could lead to a misleading description if the decision is relayed to the official over the phone. It would be like taking down driving directions without paper – and 70,000 people looking at you.

But, clearly, the wrong call was made, and thankfully it did not result in a change of fortune in a playoff game.

Ben Austro
Ben Austro
Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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5 thoughts on “Anatomy of a replay gone wrong

  1. Good stuff.

    Re: improving the system – I think another improvement would simply be to get rid of the sideline peepshow and do it all in the privacy of the replay booth. As you said, the referee has a lot going on and may not even be familiar with the details of that part of the play. And in that case, the replay booth should have access to all the available camera feeds regardless of whether the network chooses to broadcast them. Or maybe that is too difficult a task to manage that many feeds and would require a professional tv producer? Regardless, something should be done to queue up *more* views to be used for review because what’s good for TV may not be the best for the call. (While the networks do have a vested interest in certain outcomes I’m not suggesting they succumb to the temptation to attempt to alter the outcome of the game by what they choose to show [although some might]. However the fact that the broadcast typically goes to commercial when they could be serving up and dissecting more angles for a longer period of time is sub-optimal at best)

    Also, only using the ones broadcast seems to indicate the point of the process is not to get the call right, but simply a PR-related decision. I.e., we only need to fix the calls that the viewers see were wrong and might complain about, not any wrong call.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with any approach that removes the on-field review and moves it all either upstairs or, as in the NHL, to a remote location. Aside from removing the inherent bias that the on-field referee might have in favor of his own (or his crew’s) calls, it would also provide more time for a review to take place. Currently the booth time is limited to 60 seconds. If everything took place upstairs or remotely, we’d eliminate the time spent shuffling over to and from the booth and could probably double the time available for actually reviewing the play. (Although at least the NFL’s system is superior to MLB’s absurd one in which all 4 umps have to huddle up, saunter off the field and through the dugout, review it together, then come back.)

    I’d also favor eliminating challenges and going to booth reviews exclusively, as in the old NFL and current NCAA system. I understand the desire not to unduly delay the game, but again, this delay can be avoided simply by having the review itself take less time.

  3. The problem will be fixed when corrupt refs like Leavy are finally cut off from doing more harm. What is the “explanation” as to the other bad calls?? It’s clear Ben’s also in Packers pocket, just as Leavy clearly was last Sunday. No one risks his reputation the way he did if there wasn’t something big in it. I rule out him being a die hard fan, and someone on the League was backing that plan, also.

  4. “Replay is a tool to correct mistakes, not a crutch to buttress up flaky or indecisive calls.”
    Agreed.

    “I don’t see any way this can be resolved by changing anything in the replay system.”

    I do. If 60 seconds isn’t enough time to get ALL available view angles to the replay booth, then extend the 60 second time limit. (duh) There is too much at stake not to. I’d rather see them get the call right, (and I’ll bet Coughlin or any other coach would too). Whether it would have made a difference in this case, I don’t know…but there’s always the next time. But if the referee doesn’t get to see all the available angles when looking for indisputable evidence, when one might exist..that’s just crazy. And not his fault if he isn’t provided with the visual proof he needs. To think fans, players and coach’s care more about the speed of the game over the extra minute or so it would take is ridiculous and wrong. Just get the calls right, these calls can (and have) totally change the outcome of the game.

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