The game of football is facing a number of external crises these days, some of which the Powers That Be can fix and some they can’t. But there is one internal crisis that can and should be fixed — yesterday.
Instant replay was introduced to the NFL in 1999 and to major college football in 2006 with the understanding that it would be used to overturn obvious errors made by officials in real time.
In fact, here’s how the language from the 2014 edition of the NCAA’s Instant Replay Case Book reads:
The instant replay process operates under the fundamental assumption that the ruling on the field is correct. The replay official may reverse a ruling if and only if the video evidence convinces him beyond all doubt that the ruling was incorrect. Without such indisputable video evidence, the replay official must allow the ruling to stand.
Somewhere along the line this philosophy has been discarded. Replay officials no longer support on-the-field officials, they supervise them. Each game is officiated now by two sets of officials: the refs in stripes on the field, and the replay official.
The replay official now plays the part of the Great and Powerful Oz, ruling from behind his curtain at a command center hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the game, issuing decrees of what really happened, with an omnipresent vision and an all-knowing interpretation of the rule book that no one but him can possibly understand.
The data backs this up. According to a chart compiled by the NFL, the pilot season of 1999 saw 195 plays reviewed and 57 reversals in 248 total games. In 2016 those numbers leaped to 345 reviews and 149 reversals in 256 games. And not only are replay officials becoming more bold in overturning what officials saw happen in front of them, they’re becoming even more sure of what they see. The average review took two minutes and 54 seconds in 1999, and just two minutes and 25 seconds in 2016.
The typical replay official is now 62.5 percent more likely to stop the play on the field to review a play, 14 percent more likely to overturn that play, and he’ll do it 29 seconds faster than he did in 1999.
Replay officials have grown more emboldened as instant replay has become entrenched in football, but have they made the game, to borrow a term from instant replay’s own language, indisputably better?
That, like many calls overturned on the field, is open to interpretation, and we now have, to borrow another term, clear video evidence the NFL has climbed so far up its own rear in defining what does and does not constitute a catch that even a professional can no longer make heads or tails of it.
This clip from Showtime’s “Inside the NFL” catches the conversation during the NFL’s review of Kelvin Benjamin’s catch-or-no-catch during Sunday’s Buffalo Bills-New England Patriots game. Here’s the play in question:
As the replay command center in New York attempts to separate the forest from the trees, Showtime’s cameras catch the downtime conversation deep judge Mark Hittner has with Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor and head coach Sean McDermott. Hittner tells Taylor he thought Benjamin made the catch and, when the call is inevitably overturned, McDermott asks Hittner how Benjamin’s grab could not be a catch, to which Hittner replies, “I don’t know.”
But it’s not a flat “I don’t know,” it’s an “I agree, I can’t believe what I’m seeing, either.” It’s the kind of “I don’t know” you’d give your husband or wife when they ask you “Just what in the hell he thinks he’s wearing” after your college-aged son comes home for Thanksgiving with a lip ring.
Sean McDermott: “How is that not a catch?!”
Ref: “I don’t know.” pic.twitter.com/ovUmXQ1B1h
— John Barchard (@JohnBarchard) December 27, 2017
The Benjamin non-catch turned what would have been a 17-13 Bills halftime lead into a 13-13 tie.
The Benjamin play was also the second straight game that a controversial replay overturn significantly benefitted the Patriots.
— (@3lone) December 18, 2017
And, yes, both of those scoring plays are automatically reviewed according to the NFL’s replay protocol, but that’s beside the point.
The instant replay process was supposed to clarify the game of football by fixing obvious errors. It no longer does that. The call on the field far too often is no longer presumed correct, and the end result is just as much confusion and frustration as there was in 1998, with one exception: We all know how great and powerful, how wise and knowing Oz is behind his gilded curtain.