How replay is hurting the NFL

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

The clamor for making more plays reviewable by replay is constant. Every offseason, the topic is near the top of the agenda for the NFL competition committee. Should pass interference be reviewable? How about holding?

Yet every season brings more controversy and confusion. This year has featured a bevy of botched calls, both reviewable and non-reviewable. Then there is the debate about "what is a catch?" that grows by the week.

In some cases, like on scoring plays and out-of-bounds decisions, replay has made football better. But perhaps in other instances, replay is making things worse. Jim Daopoulos, who was an NFL official from 1989-2000 and then a supervisor of officials until 2011, says, "I think we're trying to use replay too much."

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Daopoulos likes instant replay overall, but he sees issues, especially on questions of possession. Replay has turned the fluid motion of catching or fumbling, or even throwing a football, into a slice-and-dice freeze-frame-fest.

"Replay lets you do whatever you want with a catch," Daopoulos says. "You can make it a catch or make it not a catch. That's the problem. You're supposed to look at it in real-time."

Replay officials understand this, and they do review at full speed, but the slow-motion option – especially in HD from varying angles – can create a distortion. And fans watching at home can easily take that distorted view as gospel. That can cause disconnect between what an official on the field saw and what everyone else saw.

"I would caution anybody trying to establish possession when you do it frame-by-frame," says longtime official Gerry Austin, who is now contributing to the "Monday Night Football" broadcast. "You can distort where possession goes away.

"Possession is defined as 'clearly controlling the ball.' You can't say in a frame-by-frame [replay] that he is clearly controlling the ball. You have to look at motion to see when control is there and when it is lost."

And because the definition of a catch has changed, and seems to change based on what replay says, Daopoulos worries officials are becoming as confused as the rest of us.

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"I don't think the officials know what a catch is," he says. "The officials are very frustrated with what they're getting from New York. We've made catch of the football so inconsistent, and I think replay is making it more difficult for them."

So it's easy to imagine the confusion that will take place if other judgment calls, like pass interference, become reviewable.

After a replay review, officials ruled Golden Tate caught the ball for a touchdown before it was dislodged. (AP)
After a replay review, officials ruled Golden Tate caught the ball for a touchdown before it was dislodged. (AP)

In an email to Yahoo Sports last month, NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent addressed the immediate future of replay:

"Will more plays become reviewable? We are always looking for ways to make the game better and instant replay has been a valuable tool in the development of the game. After the season, the Competition Committee and our staff will be analyzing the plays, and having a healthy dialogue about instant replay, keeping in mind that the human element of football is what drives our game."

The human element is something Daopoulos cares a lot about as well. He says there used to be a running joke in the league office, when officials were reviewing plays in the era before replay.

"We used to say in the league office, 'What do the 50 drunks at the bar think? They're usually pretty accurate.' "

In other words, don't overthink too much. "You tell guys, the bottom line is feel it in your gut," he says.

But with replay so omnipresent, now the 50 drunks in the bar (and media) have become their own replay officials, and they vent loudly based on the Vines and GIFs they see on social media – which opens up the possibility of the frame-by-frame bias Austin mentions.

This is beyond a football problem; it's a societal problem. In general, technology is exposing all kinds of mistakes humans make. Steve Casner, who has studied the effects of technology on human performance for 25 years at NASA, has noticed this over and over again. Video allows us to review errors we probably wouldn't have even noticed before.

"We have this attitude toward error that we haven't accepted yet," Casner says. "Even the best-trained officials miss things."

In a lot of cases, technological improvement is a terrific step in the right direction. But it's also plunged us into a rabbit hole. Technology will only get better, and that means the amount of on-field mistakes revealed will grow. That will lead to a push for even more replay … and the discovery of more errors.

The NFL may want the human element to remain in football, but it may not have much choice. Because while to err is human, officials aren't given the same leeway, especially when a high-definition replay is right there to expose every single wrong, frame by frame.

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