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NewsThe NFL’s 3 changes under the hood of replay that could have mixed results

The NFL’s 3 changes under the hood of replay that could have mixed results

There are several changes in the replay area which are going to have a profound impact on the 2021 season.

Most notably, as previously reported, the replay leadership has been completely changed. Al Riveron retired as senior vice president of officiating, and Russell Yurk has been removed from replay duties despite having the title vice president of replay. A league source stated that Yurk was reassigned to other duties “in the officiating group,” but the source was not able to elaborate. Riveron and Yurk, for better or for worse, were the two representatives that handled all replay decisions since the league centralized the operation in 2017.

In 2021, the extant senior vice presidents in the officiating department, Walt Anderson and Perry Fewell, will handle all replay decisions from the New York headquarters. Anderson is a former referee with 24 years of NFL officiating experience; Fewell is a former assistant coach and two-time interim head coach with zero years of officiating experience.

But some big changes this year will occur away from the replay hub.

Quick fixes from the replay official

With an ongoing push from coaches for a sky judge or a booth umpire — the former term which originated during the meteoric fall of the Alliance of American Football — the unanimously opposed Competition Committee held its ground and initiated a review of options. Entering 2021, the committee proposed, and owners approved, a new rule that would allow the replay official to intervene between plays to make some obvious corrections.

There is a lot of overlap with the calls that are subject to the replay official’s intervention and a coach’s challenge. So how is this going to work?

First, the replay official would have to see something abundantly clear on video within a narrow scope:

  • Whether or not the pass was completed or intercepted
  • Whether or not a loose ball touches a boundary line or the goal line
  • Correct a spot when the location of the ball relates to the boundaries, line of scrimmage, line to gain, or the goal line.
  • Correct a spot to an earlier part of a run where a runner was down by contact but not ruled down.

Added to this list under existing rules, the replay official can aid in the spot of the foul or to fix the clock to sync with the call made on the field. An example of this would be if the clock ran after an incomplete pass, but the official’s signal is delayed by 3 seconds to make sure it isn’t a fumble; the replay official can radio in with the 3-second correction.

Otherwise, replay will not intervene in other aspects that continue to be reviewable, rather the standard challenge/review procedure would make that correction.

Second, because these new items are also subject to coach’s challenges, the replay official will have until 20 seconds on the play clock to call down to the field for the correction. Therefore, a coach must hold on to his challenge flag until the 20-second mark to possibly save a challenge. But, in that time, the replay official must have the video evidence of a correction; if it warrants some degree of shuttling the video back and forth, then it would be a coach’s challenge (or a stop-down review inside the 2-minute warning or in overtime).

If a coach challenges a call before the replay official determines to make a quick correction, the challenge must be granted, even though the replay official is already working on the play. Because there can be multiple reviewable criteria on a play, a replay official can make a correction on one aspect and the coach could challenge another reviewable aspect which is outside of the scope of the new rules.

In replay, Yurk’s term for when a replay official has to be alert for a potential reviewable item is when you “see smoke.” If a foot of a runner lands near the sideline during a run or a quarterback passes the ball seemingly on (but maybe beyond) the line of scrimmage, that’s seeing smoke; this means a replay official would halt the game for a review inside the 2-minute warning, on a scoring play, or on a turnover. The cases under the new rule might be more appropriately classified as “seeing fire.” Rather than checking with a foot close to the boundary line, the replay official will make an immediate correction if the foot is clearly out of bounds.

The net result is that a coach can save a challenge for something abundantly clear on video, and instead use it on truly discretionary situations where a closer analysis is needed.

New equipment is ‘Smart’

Another key change in replay has to do with the equipment. This year, the NFL is using a replay system produced by Hawk-Eye Technologies, the same company that made its name with different system that assists with line calls in tennis. The league has dumped its proprietary NFL Vision replay system. The Hawkeye system will give the replay official a better chance at making these corrections prior to the play clock hitting 20.

The major difference is the replay equipment is now a video ingest system. Rather than waiting for the director in the TV truck to punch up the best angle on the broadcast replay, the Hawkeye system records multiple key angles, allowing there to be, literally, an instant replay in the replay booth. The replay official able to rewind the play with all angles in sync and select the key camera angles where there was smoke as soon as the play is ruled dead.

NFL replay official Robert Lu explained the system to SportTechie in 2020 when he also worked as an XFL replay official:

The Hawk-Eye system gives us the opportunity to have every camera feed that’s available sent directly to us and in-sync. The other systems available out there are dependent on the TV producers to provide the angles [to replay officials]. It’s a system that’s not dependent on another party to provide you with the video that you’ve been positioned with. It basically eliminates a step.

The fact that the television production crews have been the funnel for the replay booth for two decades has been an undesirable bottleneck in the process. Could the network’s “A” crew be more adept than a lower-grade crew at getting the proper angle to the replay booth? Absolutely. This extends to primetime games where there is more production staff and more cameras. Known as Hawk-Eye’s Smart system, or Synchronized Multi-Angle Replay Technology, there is much less reliance on the television network staff who, as we pointed out in 2012, is more concerned with providing images for their audience than assisting replay.

“TV networks aren’t obligated to show significant replays or any types of replays.”

That was vice-president of officiating Carl Johnson, addressing this inequity in 2010 when the Packers did not have a replay available at its disposal prior to the snap. Well, yes, the networks aren’t obligated. But, that’s passing the buck. The league has an obligation to have the tool available equally to all teams, just as they make sure that teams have equal access to sideline communications, injury reports, drafting college recruits, and game films. To say your tool is subject to the whims of a third party’s interest violates the principles of fair play.

Because the angles are synced, an adept replay official can better piece together elements from separate angles. Say there’s an angle that clearly shows a player’s knee, but the ball is obscured. Another angle shows the ball but not the knee. Previously, the replay official and centralized replay would have to find a common visual cue to make the comparison. Since there is a margin of error, this could lead to a decision to not overturn the call. With the Smart system, the replay official can make the determination on the runner’s knee and then switch to the synced angle in freeze frame showing the ball.

Bottom line

All told, the changes to replay have the possibility for more reversals and fewer replays, when counting challenges, booth reviews, and the new quick-fix procedure. (Because coaches will only be challenging less-than-obvious calls, it is possible that the reversal rate for coaches will actually go down.) When a replay is initiated, the delays should also be less. While the referee is a part of the review process, there are going to be situations where a clear decision could be made prior to the referee seeing the screen. In this case, the referee would just need to see enough video in order to accurately announce the replay decision.

It is, however, an unsettling game of musical chairs in the replay command center. To have Riveron “retire” (according to the league) hours before the first preseason game leads one to believe this was actually a slow-motion termination with the final settlement just before the deadline. To keep the vice president of replay out of replay adds additional layers of suspicion as to what is really going on behind the scenes. But perhaps most disconcerting is that there is no experienced backup to Anderson in the centralized replay bunker.

While the other innovations might enhance replay, the staffing issue might be enough to reverse those improvements after further review.

Image: Hawk-Eye Innovations

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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