This isnít what replay was supposed to be


There has been a lot of debate about the NFL replay system. Claims that the officiating isnít as sharp, that the officials are hesitant, and coaches like Brian Billick sounding off about the way decisions are made. To put it mildly, there have been some difficult moments. Added to the problems are the amazing options of plays that arenít reviewable, the down by contact contingency, and the ever-popular ďthe whistle had blownĒ excuse.

Maybe itís me. Maybe Iím ignorant to the rules. Maybe my recliner doesnít show me all the views I need to understand what happened. Maybe Iím misinformed.

However, on Sunday, November 9th, the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers took part in a game with one reviewed play that stands out as the shining example of everything that is wrong with the system. Hereís what happened:

The score is 28-9 Pittsburgh, early in the fourth quarter. The Cardinals had moved the ball to the Pittsburgh five-yard line, where they had a first and goal. On fourth down, Jeff Blake threw a pass to Bryant Johnson right on the goal line. The initial call was that he didnít score, so the Cardinals challenged the ruling.

Before we continue with what happened with the review, letís consider the situation. Arizona was essentially expecting one of two outcomes:

First, the play could stand. Arizona turns the ball over on downs and Pittsburgh takes over virtually on the goal line.

Second, the play could be overturned, giving Arizona six points and pulling them within thirteen of Pittsburgh. It could end up even closer depending on the extra point or a two-point conversion, and there would still be just over ten minutes to go in the game.

Watching at home, those were the only options, right? I mean, as a coach, you either win or lose the challenge. The play standsÖ turn over on downs. Or, the result is changedÖ touchdown Arizona. My expectations (and yours) couldnít have differed much from that of Dave McGinnis. Right? Ok, back to the challengeÖ

Referee Jeff Triplette ruled that Johnson had, in fact, caught the ball in the end zone. But this was the series of events he set forth: (1) Johnson was forced out of bounds during the play by a defender. (2) Johnson came back on the field and did re-establish his position. (3) Johnson caught the pass in the end zone. (4) By rule, because Johnson had left the field of play, he was ineligible to touch the ball first.

The result? Not a touchdown, but a five-yard penalty against the Cardinals and a chance to try again from the ten-yard line.

Now, some will say that since the original call was that they hadnít scored, Arizona was fortunate to get what amounted to a fifth chance to score. But that would be misguided. Triplette said the man had caught the ball in the end zone. The ruling found another option. Not touchdown. Not no touchdown. A previously uncalled penalty.

In the NFL on the same day, there was a touchdown called on a play where the receiver never came down in the field of play. He was pushed out, and the referee ruled he would have caught the ball for a touchdown if he hadnít been pushed. Thatís nothing that hasnít been done before. In fact, there were several sideline calls on this Sunday alone where non-scoring receptions were allowed when a defender pushed the player out of bounds.

Are the rules really so clear that, after saying the defender pushed Johnson out of bounds, after saying that he re-established his position on the field of play, the referee can then call a five-yard penalty on the offense during a challenge review? Perhaps itís me, but I have never seen a penalty called after a play was reviewed.

Which brings me back to the excuses. See, if Iím mistaken about all this, and this episode was handled properly, then there are far too many others that arenít. The penalty itself wasnít called during the original play. If it hadnít been challenged, the ball was not going out to the ten-yard line. It was going to the one-inch line and being turned over to Pittsburgh.

And exactly how does the league defend a down-by-contact ruling? If instant replay and reviews based on a challenge can reveal that Bryant Johnson was forced out of bounds and as such was an ineligible receiver, then they certainly can show if a ball carrier was down before he fumbled after the fact. If they can admit they missed a penalty, they can admit they missed a fumble or tackle. Right?

In week three Indianapolis played Jacksonville. Dallas Clark of the Colts has the ball and he gets decked not by one, but by two Jaguar defenders approaching from opposite directions. He got hit high and low, and was thrown into the air and spun almost three-hundred and sixty degrees. About three feet before Clark hits the ground, the ball is out of his hands. Itís crystal clear, right on my television set, again and again and again as replay after replay is shown. But itís not a fumble. Ruled down by contact.

In week number five Detroit played San Francisco. Jeff Garcia goes back and loses the football. The play is ruled an incomplete pass. Replays seemed to show the ball came out of Garciaís hand before he began the throwing motion, which would be a fumble, not an incomplete pass. Detroit is not allowed to challenge the call. The reason given? The Lions had not caught the ball, and it was ruled an incomplete pass. Therefore, they could not challenge it being a fumble.

Maybe Iím missing something and the explanations either arenít clear or I donít understand what they are trying to describe. So, try explaining this one. In at least two different games on Sunday, November 9th, the referee stopped play to ask that the clock be reset. Iíve seen it before this season. The game between the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets goes into overtime. During the coin flip, the referee explains how the overtime will be handled like the fourth quarter of the game, going on to explain timeouts and instant replay reviews. About three minutes into the overtime, New York is on their game-winning drive. Santana Moss runs out of bounds on one play. LaMont Jordan runs out of bounds on the next play. And on the corner of my screen, the clock kept running. Is that clock showing the same time the referees should see? And if so, even though in overtime, doesnít the clock stop when the ball goes out of bounds?

Earl Weaver once said that umpires get about ninety-nine percent of the calls right. But considering the hundreds of calls in every game, and hundreds of thousands of calls that take place during the season, he wasnít going to stop short of pushing them toward perfection when so many calls were wrong.

In the National Football League, it is fairly obvious that the officiating is not today what it was just a few seasons ago. And it isnít all a result of super slow-motion, intense high-definition replays being shown over and over again to the fans, pointing out the most minute details and causing the officiating crews to pause. Instead itís a set-up that allows for almost an arbitrary set of a-challenge-is-alright-here-but-not-here rules.

Bryant Johnson ran into the end zone on fourth down from the five-yard line. If he was pushed out of bounds by the defender in the end zone, he was also beyond the five yards for legal contact. And the referee said the defender shoved him out of bounds. But I guess they missed that in the replay when they were watching the other penalty that they missed in real time but ultimately did call after review.


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