September 19, 2011
When it was announced that all scoring plays would be reviewed by a booth official, the biggest concern was that too many touchdowns would force a trip under the hood and games would be unnecessarily delayed. Yet a far bigger problem has emerged through two weeks of the NFL season: Replay officials aren't buzzing referees enough. Twice on Sunday, questionable touchdowns went unreviewed by the booth, and coaches who might have challenged these calls last year but are unable to do so this season were left powerless to do anything about it.
This looks like a catch to me. Then again, so did Calvin Johnson's(notes) touchdown last year as well as countless other replays in recent seasons that have been dubiously overturned with evidence deemed "indisputable." You're telling me that there's not at least a 35 percent chance the ref would have looked at this, seen something you or I didn't or applied some arcane rule of which we were previously confused or unaware, and ruled this an incompletion? If I were Norv Turner, I'd have been willing to take that bet. (And knowing Turner's history with challenges, you know he'd have taken that bet.)
The Chargers coach couldn't challenge, though, because all scoring plays are now in the hands of the same replay official who determines which plays should be reviewed after the two-minute warning. In terms of scoring plays, the coaches' challenge is dead. If the replay official doesn't see it, there is no challenge, no matter what the coach thinks.
Turner may not have won that challenge. Over in New Orleans, Lovie Smith certainly would have won his, if it had been allowed. In the Chicago Bears game against the New Orleans Saints, running back Darren Sproles(notes) clearly stepped out of bounds on his way to the end zone. Officials on the field ruled it a touchdown, even though replays showed the Saints running back step out of bounds on the 1-yard line.
Had Smith been able to challenge, the ball would have been marked at the 1. Without a buzz from the replay official, the Saints instead lined up for an extra point.
The NFL needs to figure out what it wants from replay. Taking major challenges out of the coaches' hands goes against the purpose of instant replay, which is to get all calls correct. Hurrying up the game is important but not at the sake of making the proper rulings. (Why even have coaches challenges if they're taken away during major points of the game? Why not go to a college system where every play is eligible for review via the replay official?)
Replay delays are fine if they're meaningful. The problem isn't that the game stops too much it's that it stops for too long when it does. The NFL doesn't need to analyze replays like the Zapruder film; it should only take 15 seconds and three camera angles to determine if the ruling on the field was incorrect. Anything longer than that and the ruling on the field should stand. If you have to look that hard for evidence, chances are it's not going to be indisputable.
Neither of these plays ended up mattering too much in the result of the games. One week soon, a non-reviewed touchdown will and could swing the balance of a game. The NFL will then have a major new problem to handle, one of its own creation.
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