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The 5 O’Clock Club: How instant replay is killing the NFL

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It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

Super Bowl LII - Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

Journalists make me think, sometimes

Sometimes when I see reports about the NFL, what I read opens my mind to new ideas; I find myself considering what the journalist has written and weighing his ideas.

Sometimes they give words to my thoughts

Following the super bowl, I read an article that simply reported exactly what I had felt watching the championship game live. The article discussed one play in particular — the Eagles touchdown scored by Zach Ertz — and more generally a discussion of the use of instant replay and the ‘catch’ rule.

The rule is fine. The problem is there’s too much legislation coming from super slow-motion footage that can tell two different versions of the same story depending on when you hit pause.

Stop doing this.

People are so hung up on the catch rule that they’re not even watching the game anymore.

The broadcast spent the initial moments after Ertz dove across the goal-line deliberating over whether he completed the catch while going to the ground. After all, the ball did pop free briefly when it hit the ground, which, again, certainly warrants another look.

Except the whole time they’re having this debate, they’re ignoring the fact that Ertz took three full steps with the football before lunging for the end zone.

Eventually, Michaels and Collinsworth do turn the debate over to whether Ertz was a runner and not a receiver at the time possession was lost, yet are still lost on how this whole replay thing works.

Cris: I think they have to overturn it. Now, the question was: Was he a runner? Was he going to the ground in the process of the catch? If he were a runner and crosses the line and dives, it would’ve been a touchdown. But if he’s still a receiver going to the ground in the process of the catch, I think this is incomplete.

Al: Yep. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s gonna get overturned.

If you “have to guess,” then the call on the field probably shouldn’t be overturned, should it?

Do us all a favor: Don’t guess. That goes for NFL head of officiating Al Riveron, too, or whoever is pulling the trigger on these reviews in the future. If you have to guess, you’re doing it wrong.

When I was young

I remember a time when the NFL didn’t rely on instant replay. In fact, unless I’m just re-writing history in my imagination, I remember watching football before instant replay was used during broadcasts.

In looking at Wikipedia, I found this idea offered up:

Prior to instant replay, it was almost impossible to portray the essence of an American football game on television. Viewers struggled to assimilate the action from a wide shot of the field, on a small black-and-white television screen. However, as Erik Barnouw says in his book, “Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television”, with replay technology, “brutal collisions became ballets, and end runs and forward passes became miracles of human coordination”. Thanks in large part to instant replay, televised football became evening entertainment, perfected by ABC-TV’s Monday Night Football, and enjoyed by a wide audience.

Instant replay changed televised football when I was a young boy. It was a tool for teaching a complex game. It helped broadcasters focus on individual plays and players. It created instant highlights.

Instant replay was great.

But it created a huge issue. Suddenly, audiences at home could see when a referee missed a call, and know with certainty that the call had been blown. What used to be just the subject of another debate at the water cooler on Monday morning was now an indisputable reason for fan outrage.

Just part of the game?

It had always been axiomatic in all sports that officials will get some calls wrong, but that it was useless to blame a loss on a bad call, as “they even out in the end.” In other words, the conventional wisdom was that some calls will go against your team, but others will favor you. You had to think of bad calls by the official like a soft patch in the field, or the sun in your eyes... just part of the game.

The official missed the call? Forget about it. Get onto the next play.

But instant replay started showing TV viewers that games were being decided by the boys in the black & white striped shirts. Worse, the outcomes of some playoff games were being affected by blown calls.

Why couldn’t the league take advantage of the technology? Embrace it. Use it to correct calls so that we got the right result on the field.

Concerns with replay have been there since the beginning

The NFL commissioner at the time, Pete Rozelle, was worried about all the right things. Replay might correct some blown calls, but at a cost. The game would slow down. The officials would be undermined. Decisions would become increasingly technical, disturbing the flow of the game and making it less exciting.

Despite these concerns, in 1986, a minimalist, fairly non-invasive, version of instant replay was adopted that allowed egregious errors to be corrected.

Today’s system, with it’s red-flag challenges and all the accoutrements that have been added, including Al Riveron in New York, and former officials employed by the network (sometimes 2 on the screen together!) providing replay commentary in your living room, began in 1999.

Replay is killing the game

In my opinion, the current replay system and its flawed application is the most significant problem with NFL football today.

We hear the call from the booth announcers, “The pass is up, and the receiver is leaping for it behind the defender. It looks like he’s got the ball... yes! The referee signals touchdown!

When I was a boy, this was a time for jubilation (if your team was on offense) or disgust (if your team was on defense). Whatever you felt, it was a time for instant reaction. High fives all around or face-palms all around, the excitement and emotion that came with big plays was undeniably the best part of the game.

Nowadays, it’s quickly becoming the worst part of the game. No more instant joy or heartache. First, check the corner of the screen to see if there was a flag on the play. Next, we have to listen to Troy Aikman or Chris Collinsworth or Darryl Johnson or Chris Spielman go through the checklist:

  • Did he have control?
  • Did he have two feet down?
  • Did the ball move a fractions of an inch as he went to the ground?

We watch the replays and we wait.

We watch the TV as the producers show us pictures of the player who maybe scored, maybe didn’t score (or maybe recovered a fumble or maybe didn’t) standing on the sideline staring up at the “big screen” in the stadium, waiting for a faceless guy in New York to confirm what two officials on the field have already signaled.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

We’ll see the replay a dozen times from several angles. The play is dissected, and a million people around the world form an opinion on whether the laces rotated a bit as the receiver hit the ground, thus invalidating the touchdown, or, perhaps, whether the runner had control of the ball at the moment that his shin appeared to touch the turf.

It kind of takes the romance out of the game. It’s like reaching that special moment with your special girl, and then asking her to ‘hold on a moment’ while you go to the toilet to pee, wash your hands, take a viagra and put on a condom. By the time you get back to the action, all the excitement has been sucked right out of it.

The worst moment that I remember watching this season was the Pittsburgh Jesse James touchdown... oops, incomplete pass.

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Maybe the Patriots wouldn’t have ended up in the Superbowl if that touchdown hadn’t been overturned. After all, both teams finished 13-3. If the touchdown call stands, maybe the Steelers end up with 14 wins to the Patriots’ 12, and there’s a whole different dynamic in the AFC playoffs.

Instant replay was supposed to fix problems with officials making calls in games, not creat them.

I hated what that play did to the Steelers-Patriots game, and what calls like that do to the NFL on a weekly basis. If there is clear and convincing evidence that the officials on the field blew a call then — yes — it should be fixed by the replay official. If not — leave it alone! Let the officials on the field do their jobs; let the fans at home enjoy the big moments; keep the game moving. We don’t need the replay officials to take the role of a Court of Appeals, regularly reversing the lower court ruling because they can. Instead, they should be like the Supreme Court, selectively choosing only the most important moments to intervene and change a ruling.

There were way too many moments like the Jesse James play during the regular season. The Zach Ertz play in the super bowl ended up being confirmed, but only after Chris Collingsworth and Al Michaels had butchered one of the most exciting moments in Superbowl LII — a game that was chock-full of exciting moments — by doing what has become automatic for game analysts across all the networks; they filled the dead air time while the play was being reviewed with multiple slow motion replays, with rambling and at times nearly incoherent blather about the replay process that was confusing and, ultimately, wrong.

A great moment in superbowl history was cheapened by routine replay and the babbling commentary from the TV analysts that has become de rigeur for the league. Viewers are subjected to seemingly endless replay delays that punctuate every regular season and post season NFL game.

We can’t celebrate big plays anymore! We have to wait for a conference on the field, a signal, a stoppage of play, babbling announcers trying to fill dead air while a befuddled official stares at a Microsoft Surface Tablet (does anyone actually use those?) and listens to a voice in his ear. Eventually... finally... we get a decision. Instead of the certainty of the right call that replay was supposed to provide, however, it too often seems that the replay officials are arbitrary in their application of the technology and the rules.

It’s bad television, it creates bad officiating, and it is bad for the game of football.

Final thoughts

When I was in high school in the ‘70s we were asking why we couldn’t use instant replay to correct obviously incorrect calls on the field.

Nowadays, I sit and ask why we have to study multiple replays to decide whether an apparently correct call on the field needs to be overturned. Somewhere along the line, the idea of clear and compelling evidence of an incorrect call has gotten lost. Somewhere along the line, the guys in New York started thinking that it was their job to analyze everything, not just backstop the officials on the field to make sure some obvious mis-call didn’t change the outcome of the game.

The replay officials have become technicians, and the officials on the field are learning not to make calls, relying on replay to sort it out instead.

NFL: DEC 16 Bears at Lions Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The fears that the Commissioner, Pete Rozelle, had back in the late 70s and early 80s have all been realized:

  • A long game has become longer.
  • On-field officials are losing credibility and the ability to control the game on the field.
  • The excitement of big plays is muted by the need to “wait and see”. Worse, big plays (like the Jesse James or Zach Ertz touchdown/no touchdown) are anti-climactic, and now big games are being decided — not by blown calls on the field — but by overly intrusive replay reviews behind the scenes.

It’s just sucking the life right out of the game.

NFL: DEC 25 Steelers at Texans Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Denver Broncos Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images
NFL: OCT 30 Lions at Texans Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
NFL: SEP 22 Bears at Jets Photo by Rich Kane/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images
Kansas City Chiefs v New Orleans Saints Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Washington Redskins v New York Giants Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

Poll

What do you think of the replay system, as it is designed and was used in the 2017 regular season and the playoffs that followed?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    It’s a pretty good system that works pretty well
    (7 votes)
  • 28%
    It’s important to use instant replay, but the system needs a few ‘tweaks’
    (48 votes)
  • 40%
    Replay is a good idea, but the system is broken and needs a major overhaul
    (69 votes)
  • 12%
    Instant replay doesn’t work. We should just go live with the calls on the field, understanding that a bad call now and then is ‘just part of the game’
    (21 votes)
  • 4%
    The problem isn’t the replay system, it’s the officials on the field
    (8 votes)
  • 3%
    The problem isn’t the replay system, it’s the broadcast networks and the announcers in the booth
    (6 votes)
  • 5%
    It doesn’t matter; the NFL is a dead man walking already
    (10 votes)
169 votes total Vote Now