Despite chatter, NFL replay will remain under the hood
It has become a groundswell in the past season to have the NFL adopt a replay review system that is centralized in the league headquarters. The common contention is that the centralized replay, handled by an individual reviewer or small number of reviewers, would lend to consistency in the calls made. In the NHL, Rule 38.4 allows for reviews as to whether the puck crossed the goal line (and did so when time was in), if the puck was directed into the net by unauthorized means (off of a high stick, an official, a kick), and to make clock adjustments. While there is a video goal judge in the arena that examines all goals and no-goal calls, any reviews that are not straightforward are reviewed in the NHL War Room.
Such a system in the NFL would presumably have the replay officials confirming scoring plays and turnovers, but that any booth review or coach’s challenge would be handled at the Art McNally Officiating Command Center in Manhattan.
Despite all of the talk to revamp the replay system, there are several reasons while a wholesale change is not on the way.
1. Officiating department wants to keep the crew in charge. Under the current system, the referee makes the decision on replay reviews which keeps all decisions on every play based within the crew of seven. Senior director of officiating Al Riveron told NFL.com in October there is no reason to change. “We are extremely happy with the way it works,” Riveron said. “Our referee goes into the replay booth, and he’s 100 percent in charge of what goes on in there. We’ve very successfully been doing it that way, and I think everybody is happy that way.” This is part of the long-standing policy that the referee has sole authority from kickoff to the final second, except for emergencies, such as severe storms. He and his crew are responsible for the game without being overruled by an outside observer — even if they are wrong.
2. The commissioner even hedged on his comments. In what is widely termed the commissioner’s “state of the league” address, Roger Goodell indicated that, with centralized replay, “we believe that we might be able to achieve more consistency.” However, Goodell also stopped short of placing the command center in charge, saying, “I do believe there’s a possibility that some version of that will occur where our office can at least be involved with the decision. Maybe not make the decision, but can at least provide some input that would be helpful to the officials on the field.”
3. Back-and-forth relay is complicated. Replay reviews in the NFL are inherently more complicated than whether a black disc crossed a painted line. The league does not want a reprise of the replay fiasco of 1985 to 1991, when an eighth official (the “replay judge”) intervened to make the replay call. Because the referee was not involved in the review process, the announcement given by the referee was often described poorly and incorrectly. As a result, the replay judge had to follow up the call with a written decision to the television crew, but it left spectators at the game in the dark. The resulting dissatisfaction with the announced calls was one of the factors that lead to the moratorium on replay through the 1990s.
4. Serious consideration has not begun. Back in October, the NFL sent a representative of the officiating department to observe the NHL operation at their Toronto headquarters. This was seen as a sign of imminent change, but Reid works in a technology capacity with the department, according to an officiating source. Furthermore, Reid is a recent hire, joining the NFL from the Big 10 conference in April. So it appears that his visit was exploratory on the nuts-and-bolts at the most, such as the NHL’s fiber-optic communication system vs. the NFL’s satellite-and-telephone links.
5. Replay has been Blandino’s pet project. Vice president of officiating Dean Blandino has always sold the decentralized method of replay review. Literally, sold, as he left the league to start his own company, Under the Hood, in 2009 while remaining a consultant to the NFL. Under the Hood trained replay officials from the NFL and a handful of college conferences. Blandino believes this system works because he was part of the system from the very beginning: he was involved in reestablishment of the replay system when the owners reinstated it in 1999.
6. Replay logjams possible. Picture a Sunday afternoon with 10 games on at once (which actually did occur early this season), and it is easy to envision the nightmare scenario or simultaneous replays coming into the command center for review. Sure, there can be a small staff of reviewers on hand to take care of the overflow, but if consistency is the goal, more people involved can dilute that consistency.
7. Judgment calls are inconsistent by nature. We found this year with the Football Zebras Roundtable that even the people in charge of grading the officials can disagree. Former officiating supervisors Jim Daopoulos and Larry Upson, on occasion, disagreed with the official’s call and with each other. Their former boss, Mike Pereira, also disagreed on occasion. During the review process, supervisors take debatable calls to a group meeting in the middle of the week. Typically, these include many of the replay calls. This shows that there can still be enough variation to not close the gap of consistency.
8. Rate of return. In order to justify a revamp in the replay procedure, there must be demonstrable evidence for the Competition Committee that a change is needed. The chair of the committee, Rich McKay, often cites statistics for rule changes, such as the change in the kickoff spot and the modified sudden-death rule. The Competition Committee is going to examine the number of replays conducted this season and the number of calls deemed incorrect. While it won’t be 100 percent accuracy, the number is likely more than the accuracy of plays that are not reviewed, which is historically between 97 and 98 percent.
9. Replay officials just signed collective bargaining agreement. If there ever was a natural time to revamp the replay system, it would have been when the 34 replay officials and video assistants were in a contract negotiation. With an extended contract in hand, the league will keep the current replay employees on the payroll for the foreseeable future.
10. Likely, any change will allow some advisory input only. Blandino and Riveron already monitor every replay situation live from the officiating command center. There already is an open communication line between every replay booth and the command center. Presently, the command center is not connected with the field-to-booth communication, as far as we know.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press gave us a glimpse of the inner workings of the command center on a typical Sunday:
It would not be a stretch to patch the the command center into the replay equipment so that a member of the senior staff can advise on the final decision. This may have actually already occurred during a playoff game, as Blandino was in Cincinnati for the wild card game. An officiating source indicated to us that Blandino was observing the game from inside the replay booth and was allegedly prepared to intervene if necessary.
And, if I could add an 11th reason, personally, I have a stake in this. Sports Illustrated writer Peter King traded tweets with me on a possible centralized replay system. So we have a little friendly wager going:
Hmmm. I’ll owe you a beer if I’m wrong RT @SI_PeterKing Might want to wager you.
— Football Zebras.com (@footballzebras) November 22, 2013
We shall see once the owners vote on the proposed rule changes in the offseason.
Image: NHL photo