Major red flag

Some thoughts on the law and twisted logic of NFL replay challenges.

NFL referees are judges.  Just look at their titles – other than the Referee, Umpire, and Head Linesman, each crew has a Line Judge, a Field Judge, a Side Judge, and a Back Judge.  There are no robes and, unfortunately, no powdered wigs, but they damn sure make determinations like judges in a courtroom.1  In the NFL, sometimes they have too much power.  Sometimes, not nearly enough.


The present day “challenge” and replay system began in 1999.  Coaches were given two opportunities per game to send an electronic page or (literally) throw a red flag in order to have the Referee review footage of the play and decide whether to overturn the call on the field.  If the coach lost the challenge, it would cost his team a time out.  In 2004, the rule was tweaked so that if a coach wins both challenges, they get an opportunity to make a third challenge.  Over time, various types of plays were carved out from those that coaches can challenge, and replays for such plays are governed by a designated Replay Official who resides in a modified press box above the field.  Those plays include scoring plays, turnovers, and plays within the last two minutes of each half.

The NFL Rulebook, at Rule 15, Section 1, contains ultra-detailed provisions that control all replay and challenge situations.  It specifies that all replay reviews are to be conducted by the game’s Referee “on a field-level monitor,” only after consultation with the appropriate official.  Reviews have a time limit of 60 seconds from the time that the Referee begins his review on the monitor.  All reviewable aspects of a play can be reviewed and are subject to being reversed even if they weren’t the specific reason for the challenge or replay review.  The Rulebook also states that a decision will only be reversed when the Referee has “indisputable visual evidence available to him that warrants the change.”  The italics actually appear in the Rulebook.

It seems to me that there are some serious problems with this system.  Three jump out at me.

Rant #1:  The requirement of “indisputable visual evidence” to overturn a call:

The legal world depends heavily on the idea of “deference.”  For example, when a case is appealed to a higher court, the appellate court will often review the case in a way that holds the lower court’s rulings in a certain level of esteem.  In other words, the appellate court often will not review the case from scratch, or “de novo2 as they say in the law, but instead will give “deference” or “defer” to some extent to the determinations made in the court below.  There are different levels of deference given in different situations, which are referred to as “standards of review.”  Regardless of the specifics, it is quite common for rulings by a lower court to be given a significant amount of weight by a higher court.

The NFL replay review system employs a form of deference by requiring that a reviewing Referee see “indisputable visual evidence” before he can overturn an official’s call.  This is very similar to legal standards of review that require an appellate judge to find, for example, that a lower court’s ruling was “clearly erroneous” or an administrative agency’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious” in order to reverse the decision.  It is a difficult standard to meet, but the problem does not lie in the high standard.  The problem is in the rationale for the system, which the NFL gets dead wrong.

There are good reasons for the systems of deference in the legal world.  Perhaps the best is that, especially for questions regarding the facts of a case or technical/scientific inquiries, the lower court where a trial or hearing takes place is a better place to decide those issues than the appellate court because all the evidence is presented and witnesses are examined in the lower court.  The trial judge simply has more information and is in a better position to assess many questions than the appellate judge who is further removed from the process.

In the NFL, however, there is NO POSSIBLE WAY to argue that the official who makes the live-action call on the field is in a better position to assess the call than the Referee who reviews the footage.  After all, that’s the entire point of a replay review – to give a better and more accurate view of what happened in order to get the call right.  With Chris Johnson zooming by at 20+ miles per hour in one direction, and NaVorro Bowman rushing to meet him in the other direction, it is not crazy to think that an official standing 30 feet away might miss a detail or two.  The replay reviewer, however, has the benefit of 20 or so high-def cameras shooting at up to 120 frames per second.  Which guy has a better chance of getting the call right?  Stop being contrarian.  The answer is the second guy.  So why does the NFL shackle him with the “indisputable visual evidence” handcuff?

Thankfully, much of the time, it is not an issue.  The replay often reveals the original call to have been clearly correct or clearly wrong, and neither team or fan base suffers too much.  But the murky gray area surfaces all too often.  The system can lead to situations where a call appears to be wrong for many circumstantial reasons, and whether X or Y happened can be clearly deduced from what is shown, but since no camera angle happened to focus directly on a certain foot or hand or blade of grass, the referee will be unable to overturn the call because the evidence falls short of being “indisputable” (and this would be appropriate under the rule).  Why can’t the replay official review the play de novo?  Why does he have to defer to the live-action official’s erroneous call?  One might argue that it is simply part of the game to have officials making judgment calls as they see the action live, and we can’t or shouldn’t fully legislate that out of the game.  Then why construct the entire replay system?  Clearly, correct calls are the goal.  If one official at some point in the process is going to be making a judgment call, why not have it be the one with the massive amount of information in front of him rather than the one in a maelstrom of giant, sweaty men?  For all replay reviews but especially for coaches’ challenges, I would have the reviewing official make the call he believes is correct, without regard to the call on the field.

Rant #2: The Referee at the “field-level monitor”:

I’ll keep these next two short.  The fact that it is the Referee at a “field-level monitor” who reviews the tape and decides the call seems silly to me, especially since there already is a designated Replay Official in the booth at every game.  Weather could affect an on-field review.  A Referee likely has access to inferior technology on the field.  The entire process takes more time because the Referee has to jog over to the hood and back while the Replay Official could have already been finished.  Heck, a Referee on the field might even be psychologically less likely to overturn a call that he was a part of than an independent observer.  If timeliness and getting calls correct are actual goals, which they appear to be, why not promote them by having the Replay Official decide the call, or at least have some sort of veto power?

Rant #3: Arbitrariness of the list of “non-reviewable plays”:

The Rulebook outlines all the situations that can and cannot be challenged by a coach.  Among others, coaches cannot challenge the calling or non-calling of penalties (no matter how obvious), the position of the ball in certain situations, the recovery of a loose ball in certain situations, the status of the play clock or game clock, or the proper down.  Once again, if the league’s implicit goal is getting calls correct, why carve out a subset of potentially important plays that cannot be verified by replay?  We’ll tackle this one more below.

*  *  *  *  *

Many famous plays have implicated these concerns.  Take the famous “Fail Mary” controversy that resulted from the Golden Tate touchdown at the end of the Packers vs. Seahawks tilt in late September, 2012.3  Of course, the biggest upshot of that game was that it essentially ended the string of games officiated by replacement referees, as the NFL was finally spurred into resolving the ongoing labor dispute with the regular refs.  But for our purposes, the play illustrated many of the replay system issues mentioned above.

A quick refresher:  The Packers led 12-7 on the road at Seattle in Week 3 of the 2012-2013 season.  On the final play of the game, Seattle’s Russell Wilson heaved a desperate pass into the end zone.  Several players were in the vicinity of the ball.  Prior to the ball arriving, Seattle receiver Golden Tate gave a blatant and two-handed shove to a Packers defensive back that took him out of the play entirely.  Several players jumped for the ball.  The two with the best position were Tate and Green Bay strong safety M.D. Jennings.  Both grabbed at the ball in the air, and both remained in contact with the ball after landing.  Two nearby officials conferred with each other, and one signaled that Tate had scored a touchdown, by virtue of both players maintaining simultaneous possession (which is ruled a reception).  At the same split second, however, the other official signaled that he wanted to investigate the play further before deciding.4  Somehow, despite the simultaneous and divergent calls, the ruling on the field was a touchdown.

Mayhem ensued.  The Replay Official called for a review of whether the ball hit the ground (it didn’t) and who had possession of the ball.  The Referee decided that the requisite “indisputable evidence” to overturn the call did not exist, and he let the touchdown stand.  More mayhem ensued.  Later, the NFL stated that, while Tate should have been penalized for his obvious pass interference call, the “simultaneous possession” call was made in accordance with the rules.

Where do we start?  With regard to the “indisputable evidence” issue, this play was beyond the average could-go-either-way play.  Yes, both players technically were touching the ball when they landed.  But the trajectory of the ball, the positioning of the players’ bodies, and the square inches of hands/arms actually touching the ball, however, led many to believe (and a reasonable person could certainly argue) that Jennings had the lion’s share of the possession.  One might even argue that Jennings alone caught the ball and Tate just happened to sneak his paw into Jennings’ breadbasket but did not “possess” the ball.  The referee did not find “indisputable evidence” to overturn the call, but many (if not most) objective observers would probably pick Jennings over Tate on this play.  While the NFL may have been right in stating that the review decision was technically done correctly, that is only because of the wording of the rule and because the replays couldn’t conclusively show that Tate did not have at least some possession of the ball, even if it appeared that he did not to many observers.  Had the Replay Official or even the field Referee been able to decide the possession issue de novo, he very well may have called it an interception and the Packers would have won the game.  Maybe not.  The point is, he never got the chance.  Rather than have a legitimate look at this important play by a stable, independent observer, instead the reviewing official was handcuffed by a potentially erroneous call simply because the rule required the cameras to meet the high burden of showing indisputably that Tate did not have any possession of the ball, which they could not do.

The play may have also implicated some of the time-related and psychological concerns mentioned in rant #2 above, but it most certainly implicated the arbitrariness issue in rant #3.  The fact that penalties can never, under any circumstances, be reviewed looked downright silly on this play.  Penalties will always contain an element of judgment.  There is no objective formula for many flags that are thrown or, conversely, whistles that are swallowed.  If there was ever an objectively obvious offensive pass interference call, though, this was it.  Tate shoved Sam Shields with non-trivial force using both arms while the ball was in the air.  The NFL admitted after the fact that a penalty should have been called.  The fact that the non-call was not reviewable is a by-product of the recognition that penalties are generally judgment calls, but when the call is beyond the scope of judgment, shouldn’t the system allow for some mechanism to get it right?

A solution for the arbitrariness problem is easy.  The coach first chooses whether to challenge the call and have the Referee review the penalty call (or non-call), and the Referee reverses it if it is obviously wrong, but if it is not obviously wrong, the Referee simply calls it a “judgment call” and leaves it as it was.  It is, in essence, very similar to the current replay system for reviewable calls, but in this case, it makes more sense to defer to the call on the field (if it is at least somewhat defensible) because of the inherent judgment in calling penalties.  I can see some danger in having a Replay Official comb through every play in the last two minutes of each half while looking for any missed holding call or bump by a defender, which is why I’ve limited the penalty challenges to coaches only, meaning a maximum of three per game for each team.  This would require an exception to the “no coaches’ challenges in the last two minutes” rule, but that’s easily accomplished and a small price to pay.

*  *  *  *  *

The league has already started down the challenge/replay slippery slope.  People want the correct calls made, and they want them made consistently.  This is the United States – fans go ballistic at the thought of “unfairness” in sports.  If an obviously wrong play cannot be fixed, they go bonkers.  Ask Packers fans.  In the current system, deference exists for plays that should be independently judged, while penalty mis-calls that are beyond doubt cannot be reviewed at all.  The beauty of the law is that it can evolve.


  1. Who better to moderate the conduct of Lawyer Milloy and Ty Law?
  2. Latin for “anew.”  De novo review often happens with decisions that involve interpreting laws as opposed to determining events and facts.
  3. Yes, this example is about as timely as a Fatty Arbuckle reference, but it just works so well…
  4. Technically, he signaled for a time out, which is the normal procedure for further investigation of a play.  The game clock had already expired in this case.

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