Timeout: Reviewing the NFL’s Review System

Photo courtesy of Mike Morris

Facing a third and one from the Seahawks’ 11-yard line, down three and with just under two minutes left on the clock, the Detroit Lions held the momentum, and quarterback Matthew Stafford was finally having success against a stingy Seattle secondary. Stafford dropped back, looked to his left and fired to receiver Calvin Johnson.

As Johnson rumbled towards the end zone, Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor caught the perennial Pro Bowler at the one-yard line, forcing the ball out. Linebacker K.J. Wright, wanting to avoid the unpredictable scrum that inevitably follows an attempted fumble recovery, tapped the ball out the back of the end zone.

Seattle ball at the twenty-yard line, an all-but-certain Seahawks win on Monday Night Football and pandemonium from the raucous CenturyLink Field crowd.

Within minutes, the storyline had changed dramatically. Twitter pundits pointed to Rule 12, Section 4, Article 1 of the NFL’s regulations. The rule specifically prohibits “bat[ting] or punch[ing] a loose ball (that has touched the ground) in any direction, if it is in either end zone.” It was clear that Wright had done just that. Dean Blandino, the league’s vice president of officiating, noted that “in looking at the replays, it looked like a bat so … we would go back to the spot of the fumble, and Detroit would keep the football,” according to ESPN.  Blandino noted that back judge Greg Wilson, who had an unobstructed view of the play, believed that Wright had inadvertently contacted the football.

After the game, however, Wright admitted that he “wanted to just knock it out of bounds and not try to catch it and fumble it.” The referees didn’t make the right call, and the Lions paid the price.

I’m not writing this to lambast the referees, because they face an incredibly difficult job. They have to memorize a byzantine rulebook, apply it in certain scenarios, explain calls to the viewing audience and then face scrutiny from fans, coaches, and, in the case of Wilson, even the league. But in making sense of the chaos that is a football play, they need help.

That brings us to the instant replay system. The NFL has used replays to analyze questionable calls since 1986. The league’s decision in 2012 to automatically review turnovers and scoring plays has no doubt slowed the game down, but the replay booth has significantly reduced the potential for error; it’s much easier for a referee to make a judgment after viewing four or five angles of the same play multiple times.

Unfortunately, not all parts of a play are reviewable. After the game-sealing Monday Night Football turnover, the officials confirmed that Johnson had indeed fumbled, but batted-ball penalties are not reviewable, regardless of how clear the evidence may be. In fact, no judgement calls at all can be reviewed.

It’s not as if this one play was the only significant non-reviewable blunder referees have made in recent years. Almost exactly three years before that game, they ignored an obvious offensive pass interference at the end of a Packers-Seahawks contest, coincidentally also on Monday Night Football and in the same spot on the field. Since pass interference calls aren’t reviewable, the play stood in the face of overwhelming evidence. Numerous times in between, teams have come up short on questionable calls only to receive quiet, hollow apologies from the league office a few days later.

The solution to this problem isn’t expensive, it doesn’t mandate the development of some futuristic technology and frankly, it doesn’t complicate the game. All the NFL needs to do is open all facets of all plays to review.

Will this slow down the game further? Absolutely. The league should award each coach an extra challenge, since there are so many more elements to evaluate (and re-evaluate). Official reviews would begin to occur on questionable pass-interference or holding calls since these are the most commonly incorrect judgement calls.

Expanding the power of the review system wouldn’t take the subjectivity from football. No matter what the league does to improve the accuracy and precision of officiating, there will always be disappointed fans and irate talk show hosts. But it saves teams from the kinds of outcomes that the Lions and Packers have faced over the past few years. And that’s worth the extra effort.