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Upon Further Review: This is a Mess

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NFL replay is broken.

It seems as though every week a play is called a catch and later reversed upon review when the video is slowed down to ultra slow motion and someone in New York finds a reason to question whether the receiver had possession.

Too often, the play that seemed an obvious catch at full speed is broken down frame-by-frame until it can be overturned.

This was on full display this weekend when a Buffalo Bills touchdown was reversed on dubious evidence.

Here is the play:


Tyrod Taylor hits Kelvin Benjamin in the corner of the end zone just before the end of the half for a touchdown. But not so fast.

As happens with all scoring plays in the NFL, the play was reviewed. In this case, somehow, the call was reversed and points were taken off the board for the Bills.

When the NFL introduced its new rule in 2011 that all scoring plays would be reviewed, it seemed like it might slow the game down a bit, but it would ensure that the calls made were correct. This seems far from the case now.

In order to overturn a call, there must be “clear and obvious” evidence that the call was wrong. Former Packers head coach Mike Holmgren called it the “50 guys in a bar rule“. If you showed the play to 50 randos in a bar and they agreed that it should be overturned, then you’d have “clear and obvious” evidence and the play should be reversed.

Except that’s not what is happening.

Increasingly the guys in the booth in New York are reversing calls based on limited or questionable evidence. Every twitch of the ball is now interpreted as lack of control, no matter how brief or imperceptible to the naked eye. Take this play that resulted not in a Jets touchdown (as originally called) but in a touchback.


In both cases the play as called wasn’t controversial. Only upon review, slowing it down, and looking for excuses to overturn the call did the controversy start.

How did this all start?

In 2011 the NFL announced that it would change the way that replay worked in games. At the time, NFL head coaches had two challenges, and a third if they were successful on the first two. This meant a maximum of three challenges outside of the last two minutes of each half, when challenges were controlled by the booth. With the rule change, all scoring plays would be reviewed without challenges being used.

Then, in 2014, the rule was tweaked yet again. This time, as soon as a challenge was initiated, the replay officials in New York would begin reviewing the play. The on-field officials would then also review the play and make a decision in consultation with the New York officials. The rule change seemed to make sense. Allow the guys in New York to review things as fast as possible and help the officials at the game make swift, correct decisions. It was hoped this would speed up the game and result in more correct decisions.

And then this year, the rule was changed yet again. This time, the booth officials would consult with the officials on the field who would use a tablet to review the play. But now, the New York replay officials were to have the final say.

All of this results in centralized power for the NFL, and a speedier decision process that is more consistent. At least that was the theory. The true results have been questionable reversals and head-scratching decisions that have huge impacts on the game of football.

If you think the rule changes have led to more overturned calls, you may be right. With an admittedly small sample size, reversals were up sharply from last year when the rule was different. Through week 7 Booth reviews in 2016 were overturned 30.6% of the time. In 2017 that number had jumped to 50%. This author could not find data updated through this week’s NFL games.

While there might be other reasons for that spike in reversals, one thing is clear: The NFL replay rule has changed how we watch the game. Instead of assuming a call is correct, fans immediately scrutinize every movement of the ball to argue a case that the touchdown should not have occurred or that the knee was down before the ball came out.

Our entire attitude has changed.

How about this gem? As soon as Byrd landed, scores of Packers fans were sure that it was an incomplete pass. Equal scores of Panthers fans knew it should be overturned and ruled a touchdown. Innocent bystanders just wanted to know what a catch is.


The problem now, with centralized review and less clarity on what a catch is, every controversial play results in one fan base sure they were vindicated and one sure they were robbed. This is now part of the culture of the NFL.

Even if an effective change comes and replay becomes more predictable, and a catch becomes more well defined, the NFL will be left with fans who have been trained to think their team is getting jobbed. We believe that the review got it wrong, or that the refs are wrong, depending on which team we are rooting for.

How do we solve the problem?

First: the NFL has to define what a catch is in a better way. That doesn’t mean the NFL needs a more complicated definition. The definition has to be clearer and has to divorce itself from the “process” rule. Make a catch a catch again. If it looks like a catch, feels like a catch, and smells like a catch, make it a catch.

Second: cut down on how slow the replay officials can actually replay the footage. This sounds a bit silly but breaking down the play frame by frame is going to reveal movements in hands and the ball that are imperceptible at full speed. Make the “eye test” matter more. If you can’t tell the ball was out of the receiver’s control at near full speed, don’t slow it down to 60 frames per second. Call it a catch.

Third: put the power back in the on-field officials. Allow the booth in New York to assist and begin the review immediately but put the decision making back in the hands of the officials who saw it all happen in real time, in person.

Even if the rule is changed to something more manageable, it will take years for us to get back to accepting a catch as a catch and not looking for the smallest reason to overturn the play. The NFL has dug this hole and now it needs to get itself out.


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By Chris Kristofco

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