Commentary by Ben Austro
You could say the first domino to topple was on the Cincinnati bank of the Ohio River on a cold December day in 2013.
On a fourth-and-goal, Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis stumbled for the end zone, and line judge Tim Podraza scurried in with the signal — one hand raised, short of the end zone. The replay official called for a review of the play since it occurred after the two-minute warning.
As referee Jeff Triplette went under the hood, the television replays were showing Green-Ellis getting snared in the backfield and his knee coming down on the turf. The Colts goal-line stand would surely be upheld.
The runner is not touched and slides into the end zone. It is a touchdown.
The roar of the crowd at Paul Brown Stadium was mixed with the shocked confusion of TV announcers Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf. “Not touched?!” Gumbel kept repeating.
In a postgame interview with a pool reporter, Triplette indicated he reviewed only contact at the goal line and did not see if there was contact in the offensive backfield. Green-Ellis was not touched at the goal line, but the contact in the backfield was either not considered or not viewed at all.
The next month, the Bengals got a home wild-card playoff game, and the scheduling gods inexplicably assigned Triplette to that game. But, Dean Blandino, the vice president of the officiating department, flew to Cincinnati and sat in the back of the replay booth to observe. There was no controversy in the replay rulings that day, but Blandino was in a position to intervene if necessary, something that had not been done before (not including those games officiated by replacements during the 2012 officials’ lockout).
Over next year, the officiating department went into an all-out technical upgrade, going from satellite feeds with inherent signal delays to fiber optics. Then, a rule change allowed Blandino and his deputy Al Riveron to consult on every review. The consultant role was largely interventionist. What did emerge was a very strict standard on conclusive evidence, and the number of reversals plummeted — coaches’ challenges went from a 52% reversal rate to under 40% in one season.
While the referee held the ultimate decision, the rulings did not vary from the advice given; after all, one’s grades are subjective to the boss’s interpretation. Of course, this season the league dropped the pretense and made reviews centralized. Three designated people were going to issue a ruling on every replay challenge and booth review. Blandino departed abruptly at that time, and never was involved in the new process. Riveron was promoted to senior vice president and replay official Russell Yurk and head linesman Wayne Mackie were promoted to executive positions to be the three designees for replay.
And so the first real test came in week 1. There were 3 coaches’ challenges and 16 reviews initiated by the replay official. Were those 19 handled properly? Doesn’t matter, as we just need to focus on one.
Washington was down 5 after the 2-minute warning and driving. Quarterback Kirk Cousins was attempting to pass when the ball came loose; Fletcher Cox picked up the loose ball and ran for a touchdown. This was certainly going to review.
The broad consensus — which included the opinions of two former vice presidents of NFL officiating — was that Cousins’ arm was coming forward slightly with the ball, which makes this a passing motion and negates the fumble return to an incomplete pass. Centralized replay, however, punted.
I wouldn’t expect the referee to pick this up at game speed, as this was an extraordinarily close call. To go with a fumble is actually preferred, because replay can reverse a fumble return, but it cannot make one that was blown dead. Replay should not care if the call is close, just that there is clear and obvious evidence when slowed down. If possession and the movement of the arm are shown from the replay angles, then “confirm” or “reverse” are the only appropriate options. A call of “stands” means that there is an obstructed view or not clearly shown.
Replay went with “stands,” and it negated the comeback attempt in what was arguably the most critical use of replay this week.
The determination cannot be “well, it was a close call, so we will go with the call on the field,” especially since some of those calls are influenced by the protocols that favor one ruling over another for replay’s flexibility. The play is being reviewed because it is a close call. Referee Brad Allen was no more a part of the decision process than the players and the fans. He relayed the ultimate judgement that was rendered from Park Avenue in Manhattan to a crowd of disbelievers that included Cox himself.
It was an inauspicious debut of the centralized replay system, and the league will have to explain why the dominoes are still tumbling.