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Rules school: What replay assist can and can’t do

After a few controversial situations in the championship games, there are some misconceptions on the role of the replay official



After a few controversial situations in the championship games, there are some misconceptions on the role of the replay official and how they conduct expedited reviews or assist in correcting calls in real time. This is a quick primer on replay’s functions as they have evolved in the last two seasons.

Replay assist was implemented in 2021 as a compromise for the sky judge proposals that were under consideration. This is sometimes referred to as an expedited review, but that is a separate element we will explain. The purpose of replay assist was to make obvious corrections to reviewable elements to save a coach from a challenge. The replay official has until the play clock reaches 20 to make such a correction, which means there isn’t a chance to analyze the video for very long. If the offense hurries the snap, this is an even shorter window. That is a known feature of the system, not a bug. The replay official cannot stop the game for a potential correction; that would require a coach’s challenge or a booth review if under 2 minutes. (Reviews of scores or turnovers are not constrained by the play clock.)

In the NFC Championship Game, the quick snap froze out the ability to pull the proper angle of this 4th down complete/incomplete pass. Even though the replay official has access to all replays instantaneously, a situation like this is not expected to be caught by replay assist. It must be a coach’s challenge, and coaches are aware of this limitation in the replay assist.

The league has seen success with replay assist, which has saved a significant number of challenges or erroneous unchallenged calls.

The replay official also uses the assist to refine a spot when the line-to-gain or goal line is threatened, even though it would not make a change to the ultimate first down or touchdown call. Additionally, when a penalty flag is thrown, the replay official can help refine the spot of the foul. Replay still does not get involved in judgement calls such as holding or intentional grounding, other than to give a spot of the foul. Forward progress is also an element that is not reviewable, although if forward progress is called on the field, replay can review anything up to the point where the defense initiates contact with the ball carrier.

Replay assist will not get involved in a situation just to save a coach’s challenge. In the regular season, replay assist quickly jumped in on a catch call but missed a second angle that showed that possession wasn’t established. In this case, an incomplete pass which was changed to complete via replay assist required a coach’s challenge to reverse it back to incomplete. If there is a catch call that requires multiple angles to establish, replay assist will pass on it. When it comes to catch calls, the obvious factor must really be there in light of this assist error in the regular season.

In the AFC Championship Game, there was an unusual sequence that lead to a third down defensive stop by the Bengals being replayed. Backing up to the triggering event that caused the cascading effects that lead to the clock running in error, the ball was respotted on a 3rd & 9 play with 9 seconds remaining on the play clock. Football Zebras confirmed with multiple sources that the respot was not a result of replay assist, but rather due to the center moving the ball forward — something that officials were told on a training tape to be aware of entering the playoffs. In a 3rd & 9 vs a 3rd & 8½, there is a negligible difference on the official’s spot. The line of scrimmage official, however, stopped play because the center was altering the official’s spot, which has a direct effect on the neutral zone and the defense’s ability to remain onside.

There are also instances of expedited replay which are not related to the replay assist function. If a coach’s challenge or booth review stoppage is issued and the replay official can make a definitive determination before the referee goes under the hood, the replay official will just save the time and make the call. A situation like this might play out where the referee announces “the previous play is under review,” followed a few seconds later with the replay determination.

These are the parameters for replay in 2021 and 2022, and largely have been successful. In my opinion, the so-called “sky judge” is not the answer for officiating, because the potential advantages are outweighed by significant disadvantages. The sky judge was implemented for spring pro leagues that hired college officials and had unique rules sets. In this case, it makes sense to have someone in an overview role. There are so few situations that would, in the long run, benefit from a sky judge, it does not rise to the level of reconfiguring the entire replay function just to pick up a few of those plays (and to not correct plays that the general fan might think are slam dunk calls). Calls to adopt the college replay system have been largely rejected by the Competition Committee on similar grounds; the necessity at the pro level is so low based on the caliber of officiating between the two levels of the game.

However, we shall see in the offseason if the Competition Committee or some teams move on making any fixes to the replay system.

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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