Better Officiating, Not New York, Key to NFL Getting Instant Replays Right

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMarch 26, 2014

Officials watch an instant replay after a San Francisco 49ers touchdown against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of a divisional playoff NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Chuck Burton/Associated Press

The NFL is currently gathered in Orlando for the annual owners' meetings, and among the many orders of business this year are a number of rule changes proposed by NFL teams and the league's competition committee.

Among the measures that passed Monday was an expansion of instant replay that will get the NFL's offices in New York involved in the process. It's a measure that's being almost universally hailed as a great idea, but at the end of the day it's much more of a cosmetic change than a real step toward eliminating the sorts of blown calls that drive fans bananas.

The new rule, known by the catchy moniker "Rules Proposal 9," according to Jeff Legwold of, will allow for the use of a centralized replay system at the NFL's headquarters. Now, when a referee steps under the hood to review a play, he'll be in contact with both the booth and the league offices.

NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino hailed the passage of the proposal while pointing out to Legwold that by the time the referee gets under the hood, the league will already have had a chance to start reviewing the play in question:

It will be a discussion; we'll consult. We'll give him the information because we'll have already started looking at it before he even gets under the hood, and we can give him our input, put him in the right position to make the right call and we'll have discussion and come to a conclusion.

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh also approved of the new rule, telling's John Clayton, "Our feeling is that technology has caught up to the game. Fans get a better view than the refs do."

On some level, it's hard to see the addition of extra eyes on the play as a bad thing, especially if those eyes are paired with the additional replay cameras that are also being considered this year.

Everyone, at the end of the day, wants the same thing: for the calls to be the right ones.

However, what is the centralized replay system supposed to accomplish that shouldn't already be happening?

As an example, let's turn to the most famous blown replay call of the past few years: the "Fail Mary."

Just in case you've been on vacation and off the Earth for the past two years (I hear the commute to Mars is a royal pain in the butt), in Week 3 of the 2012 season, the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers met in the Pacific Northwest.

With the Seahawks trailing and time almost up, quarterback Russell Wilson hurled a Hail Mary into the end zone that safety M.D. Jennings appeared to intercept.

The officials converged on the play, and replacement side judge Lance Easley ruled that wide receiver Golden Tate and Jennings had simultaneous possession. Touchdown Seattle.

As a scoring play, referee Wayne Elliott and replay official Howard Slavin automatically took another look...and then upheld the call.

Chaos ensued, and the fallout from the play helped end the NFL's lockout of their officials.

Still, what part exactly of that mess would have been helped by Elliott also talking to New York?

After all, the NFL released a statement agreeing with the decision:

When the players hit the ground in the end zone, the officials determined that both Tate and Jennings had possession of the ball. Under the rule for simultaneous catch, the ball belongs to Tate, the offensive player. The result of the play was a touchdown.

Replay Official Howard Slavin stopped the game for an instant replay review. The aspects of the play that were reviewable included if the ball hit the ground and who had possession of the ball. In the end zone, a ruling of a simultaneous catch is reviewable. That is not the case in the field of play, only in the end zone.

Referee Wayne Elliott and the officials (who were the original officials in control of the instant replay) determined that no indisputable visual evidence existed to overturn the call on the field, and as a result, the on-field ruling of touchdown stood. The NFL Officiating Department reviewed the video today and supports the decision not to overturn the on-field ruling following the instant replay review.

There you go, Packers fans. Justice is served. Quit your cryin'.

Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that in this instance, after looking at the play in New York (assuming that the feed doesn't go out, which of course would never, ever happen), that the league office got on the mic and nicely said, "No, you nitwit. It's not a touchdown. It's an interception."

Assuming, once again, that this isn't the first time in the history of instant replay the two parties disagreed on a call, what happens then?

Mind you, this wouldn't be some replay official the referee would be siding against. It's essentially the league itself.

"Did you just say "no" to me?"
"Did you just say "no" to me?"John Raoux/Associated Press

Are referees going to be confident enough to stick to their guns and argue a call against the boss? If they aren't, then what's the point of pretending referees are actually in charge of anything on the field?

And before anyone gets started on the fact that the "Fail Mary" officials were replacements, two points:

First, the regular officials are far from perfect. From Barry Wilner of The Associated Press:

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin doesn't get penalized for impeding an opponent's kick return. The next week, the NFL fines him $100,000 and admits a flag should have been thrown.

The down markers and chains are moved when they shouldn't be in the final moments of Washington's home game against the Giants. The NFL says the next day that play should have been stopped to correct the error, which was confusing and somewhat costly to the Redskins.

Late in [a Week 17] play-in game between the Eagles and Cowboys, Dallas loses 15 seconds on the play clock because of an inaccurate reset. Instead of giving the Cowboys 40 seconds to get off a play, they are given 25. No on-field official notices, and Dallas is handed a 5-yard penalty.


The NFL acknowledged that referees should have penalized the Chargers for an illegal formation on a missed 41-yard field goal by Kansas City's Ryan Succop with 4 seconds left in Week 17. Had the proper call been made, Succop would have had another chance. If he hit the next kick — well within his range — San Diego would have been eliminated and the Steelers would have owned the final wild-card spot.

Those are all just from last year, and they play into my second point.

The only reason the replacement officials were on the field to begin with for that game is the NFL locked out the regular officials, who the league treats somewhere between shabbily and "seriously?"

Only a small percentage of the NFL's officials are full-time employees of the NFL. According to the AP, former NFL officiating director and Fox Sports analyst Mike Pereira thinks that's the first thing that needs to change:

My personal belief is the 17 referees all ought to be full time. They need to explore that notion because having only one full-time referee and umpire and line judge and the others makes no sense. It would not achieve to me what having all 17 full-time refs would, because they should be involved with everything. Be involved in proposals of rules changes and teaching their crews and working with the teams in the offseason.

The fact that most (if not all) NFL officials aren't full-time employees of the league is laughable, except that it's not even a little bit funny.

Here's the NFL rule book. Go ahead and take a gander.

Now commit it all to memory. On your time off from your job, as, say, an attorney, because lawyers are so well-known for having boatloads of free time.

Then apply what you know in a stadium filled with tens of thousands of people every week.

Frankly, it's a testament to how good the officials are at their jobs that more calls aren't botched.

And any pretensions the NFL may have about the idea of full-time officials being cost-prohibitive is just that.

CBS just handed the NFL and its owners $250 million for the right to air some Thursday night games. Not all, mind you. Just half the season.

Peel off 10 percent of that wad of cash, and those 17 full-time referees are paid for and then some.

Field a crew of full-time, properly trained officials, people whose primary focus is knowing, enforcing and even improving the league's rules, and the NFL wouldn't need a feed to New York.

However, rather than do that, the NFL has instead decided to flip a few switches, call it "progress" and "embracing technology" and leave the same old players with a new way to screw things up.

In any event, that should be enough to keep Blandino busy.

Full time, at that.



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