As I watched this past Sunday's games, I recalled again just how aggravating it is when a system designed to correct errors either doesn't correct them or, inexplicably, makes them worse.
By Sunday night, I decided that it was time to write a column about the inconsistencies of instant replay. I wanted to explore how the system is -- most of the time -- good at correcting obvious errors, but still has way too many flaws, way too many discrepancies in the application of the rules. There's far too much of a gray area over what is reviewable and what isn't.
Look, I don't want to blow up the whole system. Replay is here and it's not going anywhere. It's become part of the culture of the NFL. But it needs to work better.
The proof is out there on your TV each and every week. Mike Pereira and Mike Carey are both good men, and both are extremely well-versed in NFL officiating: Pereira served as Vice President of Officiating last decade, while Carey spent 24 seasons as an NFL official. Today, they're working for FOX and CBS, respectively, providing a referee's analysis of plays as they're being reviewed. There aren't two more-qualified experts to speak about the methodology and reasoning behind the instant-replay system. Having them there to provide adroit interpretation is an inspired piece of broadcast journalism.
And yet ... When Pereira and Carey are asked to weigh in on calls, what they tell viewers is frequently the opposite of the ultimate ruling. In Sunday's Chiefs-Bengals game on CBS, Carey was brought in to interpret a crucial play that had been called a fumble by Kansas City's Travis Kelce. Looking at the same replays as the league folks in New York, Carey didn't hesitate to say that the call would -- and should -- be overturned. His rationale: Kelce's forearm appeared to hit the ground before the ball came loose. Then we heard from the officiating crew, which -- after consulting with New York -- did the exact opposite thing and upheld the call.
I don't think Pereira and Carey became dumb overnight. I think the variance results from inconsistencies in the rules and application of the system.
I'm not ready to file a fully-vetted position paper just yet, but here are a few things that need to change:
Take the challenges out of the coach's hands.
I promise you the game is complicated enough without this additional duty for head coaches. The colleges have a system of communication between the referee and the review booth. The NFL could have a similar system between the referee and the league office. Review all turnover and scoring plays -- which the league already does -- as well as anything else that the referee needs help on, or that the people upstairs think should be reviewed. The booth and the officials in New York are in the unique position to give help, validation or contradiction in real time. You would still be able to save time today, because you don't have to have the referee leave the field for each review.
Make (almost) every play reviewable.
Egregious errors should be corrected. I think everyone outside of the Seattle area would agree that the blown call on Calvin Johnson's fumble near the goal line Monday night was a crucial, glaring miscue. It's not much comfort to Jim Caldwell and his Lions that, Gee, sorry, that play wasn't reviewable. Bill Belichick has argued that, if you have replay and you're going to use it, all plays should be reviewable. For the most part, this makes sense, though I am wary that reviewing things like holding or pass interference -- clear judgment calls -- would only further muddy the water.
Simplify the rules.
Does anyone know what a catch is anymore? Every time I hear an explanation of the "continuation of the process" rule, I roll my eyes and start cursing under my breath. It sounds like four lawyers trying to create a rule, because, well, that's essentially what it is. As an analyst for FOX, I worked the Calvin Johnson game against the Bears back in 2010, which brought the "catch or no catch?" debate to the forefront in the first place. Later, I tried to explain the ruling to my then-90-year-old mother, who lived to watch games on Sunday. Her response was classic: "Oh, my -- that just doesn't make sense." She was right. The NFL rulebook is the longest and most complicated in sports, and even some coaches don't fully understand it. That should change.
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All of those areas -- and more, to be honest -- must be addressed to fix instant replay.
Back in my coaching days, I was fined $25,000 by the league for saying, after a bad replay decision by Johnny Grier, "He must have been looking at pictures of his grandkids in there, because he certainly couldn't be looking at the play I saw, and come out with that decision." And that was after a game we won.
While I eventually racked up $75,000 in fines, I have tremendous respect for the job that officials do. This is not about a lack of effort or basic competence on the part of the zebras. NFL VP of Officiating Dean Blandino does an excellent job, and the league spends untold resources reviewing, training and trying to get it right. They include two former head coaches, Mike Smith and Jim Schwartz, in two days of discussions during the week to review every call.
But there's too much parsing of language -- and not enough common sense. Remember, the system was designed to remove the "egregious error." I have sat in many a meeting at the league level, reviewing a play frame-by-frame. If it takes that level of fine-grained scrutiny to determine an outcome, it probably wasn't an egregious error.
In the end, the league has to make it better. And I'm confident it will. The screams of outrage after the Lions-Seahawks game will provide further incentive to do so.
I am not upset when officials miss plays. I am upset when a replay system that's been in place for nearly two decades still can't seem to get a number of important calls right.