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Despite calls for major change, NFL makes simple tweaks to replay



The NFL officiating department command center in New York City.

2014 rule changes

The 2014 replay process is going to be much the same as the process from 2013; the changes being made to the system probably will barely register with most fans.

There were too many hurdles to implementing a true centralized replay system, so a simple change will allow the senior officiating staff to eavesdrop on the field-to-booth communication between the referee and the replay official. Dean Blandino or Alberto Riveron — the vice president and the senior supervisor of officiating, respectively — will be available to consult on every replay review. The home office won’t be able to compel a review that is under the exclusive domain of the replay official (plays that are scores, turnovers, after the two-minute warning, or in overtime); this includes the replay official’s decision to confirm there are no reviewable elements on a scoring play.

Replay rule revisions

VP of officiating or his designate can be consulted during replay review
Loose-ball recoveries in the field of play are reviewable
Rule 15-9-4 (reviewable plays) reorganized for an easier read

Although the complete operational details are not known, it appears that the referee will be allowed to make his call in a replay review. Initial indications are that Blandino and Riveron will take a hands-off approach, and allow the process of the review to go as normal. In cases where there is a misapplication of the rules or a missed aspect of the play, Blandino or Riveron can intercede. However, if the boss’s opinion is expressed during the review process, what grade-conscious referee is going to discard that opinion and go out on his own?

Football Zebras has learned that there is already precedent of this “senior staff audit” of the replay process. Because of the controversy around the playoff assignment in last year’s Chargers-Bengals wild card game, Blandino was in Cincinnati, and our sources say Blandino was positioned in the back of the replay booth to keep watch over the reviews by referee Jeff Triplette.

dr_strangeloveSomething had to change this offseason with replay to ensure preventable errors were not made. While there was a widespread call to have the NFL match the NHL “war room” replay model, Football Zebras reported on Feb. 2 that the likely result was the system that the owners ultimately passed on Tuesday.

This new system, while just a minor change, will put Blandino right in the cross-hairs of public opinion to deliver. Blandino hasn’t been publicly tested quite like this, as his “Official Review” segments on the NFL Network come hours, even days, after the call. Blandino’s knowledge of the rules is unquestionably strong, but there is no room for error under the new process.

Based on his past statements, Blandino didn’t even want centralized replay, and this system buys him some time. If the league can make it through the 2014 season without a replay controversy, then there won’t be a major effort to reform and centralize the replay operation.

Recovery of a loose ball reviewable. There were three notable instances of a loose-ball recovery from the last season that could not be reviewed under the rules:

Previously, loose-ball recoveries could only be reviewed as part of a boundary-line or end-zone decision. In all other instances, the ruling of a recovery could only come when a play was reversed to a fumble, and an immediate, clear recovery was made. The rationale was to avoid a replay situation where a ball goes into a fumble scrum. Most recoveries will involve a pileup, so the coach will have to be sure indisputable video evidence supports the risk of a loss of a challenge and a timeout.

Reorganized replay rules. Unusually, the entire operation of the replay system is contained in Section 9 of Rule 15; the rest of Rule 15 is dedicated to the duties of the rest of the officiating crew. I thought that the replay rules would be better outlined if they were moved out of the crew responsibilities and into its own rule (like overtime procedures and guidelines for captains are).

Blandino and the Competition Committee tacked on a rewrite of Rule 15-9-4 (reviewable plays) to the proposal for loose-ball recoveries. Because of past revisions to the replay rules, the bullet list became very clunky, and were sort of grouped by the type of play and in overarching categories. The new revision groups by type of reviewable element (plays involving possession, plays involving touching the ball) and divides up the “sideline, goal line, end zone, and end line” meta-category.

Proposals voted down. A proposal from the Patriots would have the allowed a coach to challenge any play, except for scoring plays and turnover plays. This would effectively encompass any official’s decision. The proposal would have allowed the coach to challenge after the two-minute warning and in overtime. It also would have done away with the challenge flag, as coaches would have needed to call a timeout in order to challenge.

Another proposal by Washington to would have added “any personal foul penalty” to the list of reviewable plays.

The Competition Committee, as matter of policy, doesn’t discuss the merits of team proposals, but committee chairman Rich McKay, in response to a reporter’s question during a conference call, did telegraph the fact that the committee was not in favor:

We’ve always shied away, as a committee, from penalties and the review of penalties for the most basic reason. We didn’t want to put the referee in the position of using his subjective judgment on a play in place of the on field official. W e always thought the intent of replay, when it was put back in in 1998, was to deal with plays where there was an objective standard. There was a line, there was a goal line, there was a knee down, there were two feet down or whatever that objective standard may be and to stay away from the subjective aspect of the plays like penalties. So we have not gone down that path but we have discussed it numerous times.

Jeff Fisher, another committee member, realized this comment inadvertently skewered the other proposals, and interjected:

We have had further discussion on it as it relates to Washington’s proposal and New England’s proposal as far as penalties are concerned.

Both proposals were voted down by the owners.

Images: Undated NFL handout photo of the officiating command center; Dr. Strangelove from a Columbia Pictures promotional release.