Replay is supposed to answer confusion with conclusion, to add clarity when the truth of what happens on the field is muddied. This NFL season, however, questions about officiating have been joined by questions about the safety net.
And those questions are now challenging head of officiating Dean Blandino and his entire review process.
Just one example: Back in October, the Bears visited Detroit. Lions receiver Golden Tate had a pass ripped from his grasp at the goal line and into the arms of a Chicago defender. What would have been a go-ahead touchdown was ruled on the field as an interception. Upon replay review, however, the call was overturned: touchdown Lions, who went on to win in overtime.
Here's how Blandino explained the reversal:
"When you watch the play, [as] the ball comes loose, he is taking his third step; the third step is almost on the ground when the ball comes out. He had demonstrated possession, had become a runner, once the ball breaks the plane of the goal line in possession of a runner it is a touchdown and the play is over at that point."
Gerry Austin, who spent 26 seasons as an NFL referee, didn't see it that way.
"Golden Tate was not a completion. It was an interception," Austin told Yahoo Sports. "The football gods said, 'OK Detroit, here's a payback for you for the illegal bat against the Seahawks.' That's the only explanation I can give for why that was not an interception."
Austin does not mean Blandino when he speaks of "the football gods," but his mystification hits to the core of the frustration: Replay is intended to end controversy, not exacerbate it. On the occasions when it doesn't help, the negative reaction among fans and media is doubled, and human error becomes institutional error.
"If you're watching the game, and the officials make a mistake, you're upset with the officials," said a former referee who asked not to be named because of his relationship with current officials. "If it goes to replay, and it's still wrong, people are more upset. If they're wrong in New York, that's when it loses credibility."
While it's the owners who decided to implement replay as part of the officiating process, it's Blandino who decides what that process is. Now in his second year as head of officials, he is in many ways perfect for his job: he's open and transparent, willing to explain decisions both on social media and on television. His significant background is in replay – his first full-time NFL gig came 20 years ago as an officiating video assistant – and that allows him to advise with acumen. But it does not give him the one credential he's missing: he's never refereed an NFL game.
"I don't know that it concerns me," says Austin, "but it would certainly be a plus for him if that experience had been in his background."
Another longtime official was more blunt. "The problem is that Dean has taken on too big a responsibility," said the official, now retired. "He's taken on this responsibility without any background as an official. He's a video technician that's taken over replay."
And replay is, to some degree, taking over officiating.
When the league office is consulted, the video trumps the official's recounting of what he saw on the field. "The referee is charged with making a decision based on the video evidence only," Blandino explained to Yahoo Sports. "They cannot make a decision based on what they've seen live. They can only make a decision based on the video evidence.
"We have the full picture here."
Nobody questions the need for replay. There's always been a general skepticism of officials, in every sport. And officials themselves want to get it right every time. But lately the definition of certain fouls or what makes a catch a catch or a fumble a fumble has called the NFL's rulebook into question, and replay is the root of a lot of that ambiguity.
"Everybody has to be on the same page," says the former official. "Whether you agree or disagree, they were consistent [before]: This is a catch, this is [pass interference], this is holding. What's happening now is the officials are shaking their heads on what they're being told."
Austin puts it more diplomatically:
"It's about understanding the spirit of how the rules should be applied," he says. "I don't know if that is ingrained in the officials as it used to be."
Austin uses an analogy of driving a car on a highway where you're driving slightly over the speed limit of 55 mph.
"Have you broken the law? Yes. The spirit of the law? No," he explains. "Is it holding? Yes, he's grabbing him. Has he restricted him? That is the spirit for the application. Some of that is missing now. I think it's gone down in the last 10 years."
The same logic can be applied to a catch. Did a receiver appear to have control of the ball in real time? Yes. As the player is falling to the ground does a single frame in a replay show the ball move slightly? Yes. Does that mean it's not a catch?
What if a receiver is adjusting the ball to brace himself for hitting the ground, which he now knows is part of the catch attempt? He might give the appearance of lack of control when in fact he is establishing and ensuring control.
By rule the referee on the field has final say on calls that go to a booth review, only he doesn't. Blandino does.
"I'm in charge of the department," Blandino explains, "I can overrule him. Very rarely will it come to that."
So rarely, he says, that the situation has not arisen at all this season. Yet his answer shows the possibility of tension: even though the rule states the ref has final say, Blandino trumps the rule.
"Every single referee will tell you, Dean makes the final decision," the former official said. "Dean is the one who evaluates them."
Blandino understands and accepts the focus he's under. He admits he's made mistakes but feels he can rely on the people around him, who have extensive on-field experience.
"I look at the position I'm in and a lot of what I do has nothing to do with the X's and O's of officiating," he explains. "I feel like the head coach. I've got a team of supervisors who have been successful on the field. I have to rely on them. I don't feel like [the lack of officiating experience] has been a hindrance for me. I feel like I've established a level of credibility with the staff."
Blandino says the league is averaging 23.8 reviews per week. He has a staffer monitoring each game, and he has help from Alberto Riveron, who is a former on-field official. Blandino says the workload is not overwhelming, even though several games are going on at once.
He urges fans to put the current officiating issues in perspective. He says there have been 29,000 plays in the NFL this season and the officials have made "four or five mistakes per game." That's a very good rate, certainly better than the error rate for, say, coaches or players. But this season, and in every season to come, all the mistakes will be put into high definition.
Last Monday, following Baltimore's final-play victory over Cleveland in which the Ravens' Will Hill scored on a return of a blocked field goal, the league office was flooded with still shots of Hill appearing to step out of bounds. But another angle revealed the truth: the camera lied, and Hill stayed in bounds. Blandino tweeted the clarification, taking advantage of the ability to teach and explain through social media. But again, it leads to an uncomfortable question: If the camera lies to a horde of Browns fans, won't it lie to Blandino?
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