NFL instant replay: a broken system

The Super Bowl is only 26 hours away, but Adrian the Canadian is working overtime to improve the NFL review system. Here are some potential disasters that he came up with for Sunday, along with his advice for the NFL:

While many fans across North America are spending Super Bowl week analyzing match-ups, placing bets (shhhh…), worrying about Gronk’s ankle, or pinching themselves in disbelief that a team with a negative regular season point differential could be the pundits’ choice to win the game, I’m hoping for something else: that the game turns on a controversial play that finally blows up the NFL’s nonsensical and unfair instant replay system. Because, let’s be honest, the NFL’s challenge system is absurd and has become more absurd with the imposition of mandatory review in the final two minutes of each half and of scoring plays. What sort of plays could lead to an overhaul? I’m glad you asked: 

There are two main problems with the NFL’s instant replay system. The first problem with the NFL’s current replay system is that the imposition of mandatory review in certain circumstances has made the system asymmetrical. Drew Magary over at Deadspin had a great summation of the ways in which the system’s asymmetries are unfair. For those who don’t want to click on the link the upshot is this: because when and where a play takes place and what the call is on the field determines whether or not a play is reviewed, similar plays can be treated very differently for no good reason. The second is that the replay system isn’t neutral. While we like to think that overturning a play makes things “as they would have been if the call was correct,” there are some situations where this is not the case. A better replay system would endeavor to get us closer to “as they would have been” then the current one does. The first problem is easily solved, the second one is likely intractable, although I think that improvements are possible.

Here are some examples. Assume the Belichick has used up all his challenges:

The Close Touchdown

2:30 to go, Pats down by three, Gronkowski catches a ball at the back of the end zone, the referee says that he only got one foot down, television replays show that both feet were in bounds with possession. Belichick wants to challenge and can’t because the pass was ruled incomplete. There can be no review.

Now, if the official had ruled the play a touchdown there would have been automatic video review. The NFL treats the play as less important because it was ruled incomplete without a good justification. It’s also worthwhile to note that, even if Belichick had challenges left, he’s still worse off than with automatic review if he challenges and wins; while he doesn’t lose a timeout, he has one less potential challenge he can issue.

There’s a secondary problem here as well. Referees know that only scoring plays get reviewed. They also don’t want their calls to have a substantive impact on the game. So, their best bet is to call all close plays in the end zone touchdowns and rely on automatic review to correct the call. This would be fine except the standard of review is “incontrovertible evidence,” meaning that close calls will be left to stand. Thus, in the long run, this officiating strategy will lead to more plays being called touchdowns than a system of automatic review of all close touchdowns.

So what can be done to remedy this problem? Automatic review of all close touchdowns would work. Allowing officials to elect video review of close plays in the end zone would be another option (this is the policy for all top level rugby).

A slight variation:

Same facts as above, except Gronk catches the ball on the one and then steps out of bounds. No review. This could be remedied by automatic college-style booth review.

Money Time

It’s often been said about clutch quarterback play that you only have to be “clutch” because you didn’t do enough in the first three-and-a-half quarters to put the game out of reach. There’s a large element of truth to that. The NFL doesn’t seem to recognize this in its replay policy, though. Once again:

2:30 to go, Pats down by three, Brady throws low across the middle, Corey Webster intercepts, replays show that the ball bounced before Webster caught it. Again, there can be no challenge.

Great except that if the play happened thirty seconds later, there would have been an automatic booth review. There is no good reason to place the play under closer scrutiny if it takes place within the final two minutes of the half. An interception at any other point in the game could have an equal or greater effect on the final outcome than an interception in the final two minutes. Yet the play that takes place late in the half is treated by the league as more important. This has the potential to be deeply unfair.

The solution to this, as above, and as suggested by Deadspin, is simply the college rule: automatic review of every play. Or, if the NFL wants to retain the challenge system, it should get rid of booth review in the final two minutes of each half and make the rule consistent across the game. So, I propose two options to solve these issues:

  1. Automatic booth review of every play or
  2. Automatic review of close plays in the end zone and a consistent, challenges only rule throughout the rest of the came

While I prefer the first rule to the second, both of these problems are easy to deal with compared to the Hochuli Problem (yes, the Hochuli Rule again)!

The Hochuli Problem

Fumbles may be the most challenged play in the NFL. They are also the most problematic from a replay perspective. As we’ve seen, a play that is initially ruled as “not a fumble” can be reversed via challenge under the Hochuli rule. If the play is reversed, the recovering team gets the ball at the spot of the recovery and does not get the benefit of any subsequent return. As the Detroit Lions know, this can be huge. Example:

Vince Wilfork hits Eli Manning while he is in the act of throwing. The play is blown dead as an incomplete pass. As the play is being blown dead, Jerod Mayo picks up the ball and has an unimpeded route to the end zone. The play is challenged, overturned, and the Patriots get the ball where Mayo picked it up. A variation on this would be Welker catching a pass, diving, getting up, running for a score and being called “down by contact” with replay revealing that he was untouched.

Our intuition as fans is that a properly challenged call should have little substantive impact on the game itself. The overturned call makes the game as if the call had been correct in the first place. And yet here that is not the case – Mayo would have had a sure touchdown but for the early whistle. So what should a prudent referee do? Like in the first example I gave, a prudent referee should err on the side of fumbles, let the play happen, and then wait for the challenge to correct the play.

There are two problems with this. First, the challenging team is worse off even if they win the challenge – they have risked a time out and have fewer challenges for the rest of the game. This can be remedied with booth review. The second problem is the same standard of review problem we discussed earlier; because the standard of review is “incontrovertible video evidence,” if the play was close — let’s say that it was more likely than not an incomplete pass but not clearly so — the fumble will stand. The issue here is that any deference to the referee’s initial call is unwarranted because the referee is purposefully biasing his call in order to get a better substantive outcome (if it is a fumble, the Patriots get the benefit of the return, if not, we’re not risking costing the Patriots a game changing play).

The solution to this problem is less clear. I hope to get to it in a later post (there was a big debate on law blogs on standard of review in instant replay earlier this year), for now let’s just say I’m ambivalent. I’m leaning towards saying that different plays may require different standards of review or that the NFL’s replay standard of review should be lowered slightly. But before that, what do you guys think?

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4 responses to “NFL instant replay: a broken system

  1. I can’t believe the amount of time you have on your hands. Don’t you work or study or anything?

  2. I do a little of everything Prell – a renaissance man. You can blame Adrian for this one though. He churns out words at an alarming rate.

  3. Pingback: LOS LIIIIIINNNNNNKKKKSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!! | Causal Sports Fan

  4. Pingback: Adrian the Canadian on instant replay and cricket | Causal Sports Fan

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