After Further Review: A look at the NFL replay review system
Part 2 of a 4-part series
“The purpose of replay is to make sure the correct call is made.” Technically, that statement is false.
If the philosophy of replay is to be the on-field eraser, then prepare for every play to be thoroughly proofed for accuracy.
Under the current challenge system, a coach must determine the “worth” of challenging a play. If a three-yard swing pass brings up 3rd-and-7, but the replay shows the pass should have been ruled incomplete, a coach has to decide if those three yards are worth a precious challenge, and in the event he is wrong, a timeout.
If the replay official is in charge of initiating challenges, that pass would go under review, because there is no penalty if the replay official challenges. And, he has unlimited challenges. Now, the momentum the defense has built up for third-and-long has been lost to check if it should be third-and-a-little-longer. Also, the offense has plenty of time to call two plays: one for each replay outcome. Advantage now switches to the other side of the ball.
From 1985 to 1991, the NFL placed an official, originally called the “replay judge,” in charge of initiating reviews from the booth. His discretion was nearly limitless as to what plays could be reviewed, except for penalties. Delays were frequent and long. Television cameras attempted to peer into the window of the eighth official’s box while he pored over videotape of the last play that seemed to have occurred an eternity ago. The flow of the game was interrupted because a replay official couldn’t cherry pick certain plays to review. (After the 1991 season, the owners repealed the instant replay provision, and re-instituted it in 1999 under the current challenge system.)
One official who worked on the field during the first era of instant replay review told me he felt the replay officials acted like they were officiating and stopped the games too much.
Is the current system perfect? No, and it never should be. It really should be there to correct the big calls, judgements that need the benefit of a slow look. That’s why scores and turnovers are automatically reviewed. But the entire system doesn’t need to be completely overhauled — fix the problems with a patch, not by overhauling the entire system.
I also feel the referee should be ultimately deciding the fate of the replay, something missing from the first generation replay system. Word had to be relayed to the field, and the referee, without seeing a single frame of evidence, was responsible to read the verdict like some kind of court clerk. The referee is ultimately responsible for the calls that his crew makes, and so the league should not leave a decision to someone who is not in uniform that day, whether it be the replay official or a centralized replay official in the league office like the NHL does.
The current system does it right. Let the referee work out the replay, just as he would work out a dispute of false start/encroachment flags by two different officials on the same play. We may disagree with the call on the field, but at least we know who is responsible for the call.