Bench Points Summer Workouts: Instant Replay

Back after a layoff! Sorry for the delay. 

For this week’s serial post, I’ve decided to address the rules and circumstances surrounding instant replay in both college and professional football. I hope to show the difference between reviewable and unreviewable and maybe make you realize how much that loud mouth yelling “Challenge it!” needs to just sit down because he is embarrassing himself and his children. 

Let’s start with a brief oral history of instant replay. 

I hold Phil Luckett personally responsible for ushering in replay in professional football. He was the first official I knew by name. I learned his name for terrible reasons. Watching him officiate my teams when I was a kid was painful. I was at the age when I was beginning to understand the deeper theories and rules of football, so I was old enough to understand the horror being perpetrated by his crew. 

It’s hard to imagine a world without replay today. And, to the credit of the officials, not much gets missed. Still, in Luckett’s day, you live and died with the calls as they were made on the field. It all came to a head in 1998 when Luckett botched an overtime coin flip, costing the Steelers the game against the Lions*; and, when Luckett’s crew erroneously awarded a touchdown to Vinny Testeverde and the Jets on 4th and goal, when replay clearly showed the ball short. The Jets won the game on that play. 

*Author’s Note: Luckett told Jerome Bettis that his initial call was “Heads” when the Running Back was heard calling tails. Upon scrutiny post game, Bettis called heads before calling tails. The rules at the time required the referee to accept the first call made. Luckett did nothing wrong. 

The Testeverde play was ultimately the ammunition the NFL needed to implement replay. Luckett continued his career in the league for a couple more seasons before hanging up his whistle. Controversy follows him everywhere. He even served on the Packers-Seahawks Fail Mary game in an official capacity in 2012. Ridiculous. Poor guy. 

College football was slower on the uptake for a couple of reasons: first, the NFL’s replay system was a grand experiment and collegiate conferences were not looking test the water with both feet on something so expensive. Second, the NCAA did not have a strong centralized leadership body. The power rested with the conferences much like today; universal adoption was more daunting 15 years ago. 

So, college football watched and waited. Then, the Big Ten conference piloted the concept in 2004, 5 years after the NFL. Like the pros, they implemented it as a reaction to a major controversy–to wit, Michigan vs. Michigan State in 2001. 

In 2005, after the success of the Big Ten’s instant replay system, all conferences were given the permission to move forward with the experimental replay provisions. In 2006, the NCAA adopted it universally–which, oddly, marked the beginning of a centralizing power shift in college football. 

The rest, as they say, is history. Both leagues have modified replay rules and fine tuned its systems but both generally work the same as the day they were adopted. 

Let’s look at the similarities. Both leagues generally have the same sets of plays that are “reviewable.” The general driving force behind whether a play is reviewable is the notion of rule enforcement. The question has to be along the lines of what rule applies–or what happened first. Official’s judgment, while possibly wrong and poor, cannot be reviewed. 

I’ll say that again: no ruling based in judgment can be reviewed. This means most all penalties like pass interference, holding, or roughing the passer, and other judgment calls will stand unless there is a concrete rule deeper than judgment at work–like whether a downfield pass is tipped before defensive interference occurred, which negates interference. 

Three of the most common reviews are catch/no-catch, fumble/down by Rule, and line to gain reviews, which focus on touchdowns, first downs, and other reviews surrounding progress. Catch/no-catch is relatively straightforward–the replay is examined to determine whether the receiver made a catch before the ball became dead by Rule. Fumble/down is similar, and seeks to determine which occurred first. Replay helps both of these first two since officials have to make split second rulings during live ball. Line to gain reviews use camera angles available–with rule changes in place, expect the angles to be better in both levels–to determine whether the ball was appropriately spotted or that a scoring play was correctly ruled. In a way, this one is also all about what occurred first. 

Before we move on, make note: replay confirms rulings on the field if correct, let’s rulings stand if there’s not enough in the replay to see, or reverses rulings deemed to be incorrect by video evidence. If you watch college football at all, they will tell you about this distinction EVERY. SINGLE. REPLAY. Shut up, Verne (and Gary)!

I digress. Let’s move on to differences between the leagues, we’ll discuss two major ones. 

First, the mechanics are entirely different. College football subjects every single play to replay review–all done by a booth official, the Referee never performs the review, this is different from the pros, too. The booth official reviews the replay and buzzes down to the Referee to stop the game. Then, the Referee and usually the calling official head to the sideline to talk to the replay official about the play.  A decision is made and the Referee announces the ruling. Play resumes. The NFL, for some reason, turned instant replay into a game of chance better suited for the county fair than for an elite professional sports league. Coaches are awarded challenge flags and given two challenges per game and the option to earn a third one if they are correct both other times. Additionally, if coaches challenge and are wrong, they lose a timeout. The NFL has since grown replay to make it more about getting calls right, and less about being a draconian strategy game. However, it’s still nowhere close to the college standard. Only turnovers and scoring plays are automatically reviewed. 

College football awards one challenge per team per game, but teams must call a timeout to use it. If they end up being correct, the challenging team has their timeout restored. Today, we often see challenges being made when teams are on defense and the offense is running a hurry up. One thing that is common to the NFL and College: once the next play begins with a snap, reviewable plays become unreviewable. Teams unsure about a catch or fumble hurry to the line to beat the replay official. A defensive timeout and challenge stops that strategy cold. 

Second, we’ve already touched this briefly, but the NFL has the Referee watch and rule on the play. The only time the booth official has any power is in the last two minutes of each half. Then, coaches cannot challenge and NFL replay and College replay are nearly identical in terms of how replay reviews are initiated. College always has a spare official–typically a well-seasoned former Referee–running the booth. All decisions come from the booth official in the NCAA. The NFL not only makes the booth official useless, but turns the review into a ridiculous gimmick. The Referee in the NFL always makes the decision on the call, and watches the replay from as many angles as possible. However, to ensure the reviews don’t “take too long” the NFL has a time limit after which the monitor and the headset will cut off. If no decision could be made in the time allotted, the play stands. It’s the most ridiculous thing ever. Every single time the NFL tries to improve its replay system, they also implement something idiotic that completely ruins the progress. 

The NFL has learned a great deal from college football in terms of replay reviews. Additionally, for a sport that potentially reviews every play, the games are not that much longer. It’s clear that where the NFL failed in replay implementation, college succeeded. It’s time they admit defeat, and take on the collegiate model of replay review. The NCAA model has equity and fairness at its center, the NFL’s is about ratings and gimmicks. 

For all the lip service given to the game’s integrity, not much has been done to improve the quality of play by the competition committee. Changing replay fully would have a tremendous return and make the game less maddening. 

No team should have to endure a blown call that may determine the outcome of a big game solely because they don’t have any more red flags to throw on the field. 

It’s a disaster waiting to happen. 

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